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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Writers and the dictionary arrow Literary issues arrow Indexes and inconsistencies
Indexes and inconsistencies
Looking back in 1989 at the early days of compiling his Supplement, Burchfield wrote:
the entire works of writers like Eliot, Auden, Joyce, Lawrence, and many others, needed to be indexed in the manner that the readers of sources drawn on for the OED had indexed the works of Chaucer, Malory, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, and all the other famous writers of the past. (Burchfield 1989: 8)
(Elsewhere he picks out Edith Sitwell, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas and Roy Fuller as such authors.)

Setting aside the question of how such writers should be identified (see The canon), indexing authors in this way was specifically disclaimed by Murray: 'forming complete verbal indexes to all books...is not only impossible, but the results would be unmanageable' as he told the Philological Society in 1884 (although his assistants had made a start on some books in 1879; see Murray 1884b: 516; 1879b: 572).

It is possible that the first OED editors established an index for Shakespeare's writings, which are almost exhaustively cited in OED - not as difficult as it sounds, given the concordances and glossaries available - but there is no direct evidence that they did so (and no evidence now survives of indexes to any writer or work, though one had originally been planned for the writings of Burke). The lexicographers seem to have fallen well short of a complete record of any other writer, even those they quoted most (Chaucer, for example, is far more extensively covered in the MED than in OED1, and OED3 is now including many more quotations from his works; see Brewer 2007b: 253).

Clearly, indexing would have been equally impracticable for the second Supplement. There is no indication that it occurred; indeed, in the Introduction to Volume 1, Burchfield apologizes for his policy of 'liberally representing the vocabulary of such writers as Kipling, James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas', as against the OED's 'policy of total literary inclusiveness for the earlier centuries...[of] all the vocabulary, including hapax legomena, of such authors as Chaucer, Gower and Shakespeare'. This last remark is baffling. Any regular user of the parent Dictionary can attest that OED did not, and could not, achieve 'total literary inclusiveness'.

Inconsistency was unavoidable in a policy such as this, and Burchfield freely acknowledged that he changed his mind as he went along, for example deciding in 1973 - after the publication in 1972 of his first volume, treating the letters A-H - to include all rather than just some Jabberwocky coinages, with the consequence that, of this group of words, only borogove, callay, callooh, frumious, and gimble are omitted from the Supplement (Burchfield 1974: 13). He also acknowledged that 'the pattern of admission' of such words
was governed as much by the choice made by the readers as by any abstract principles adopted by the editors. If a reader made a slip for such an item it was likely to be included, with small regard for consistency in comparable words, or in words drawn from other writers, in other parts of the Dictionary. Conversely a word that was not copied by a reader had little chance of inclusion since the editorial staff would almost certainly be unaware of its existence. (Burchfield 1989: 89; cf. similar remarks on pp. 13, 84, and our pages on Reading and readers, where we also quote this remark.)
The results can be seen in any Supplement author whose works are checked in detail against the Dictionary itself (e.g. Auden). Similarly, the usage of earlier poets and writers is in many cases inconsistently recorded in the first edition of OED.
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