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The dictionary

Steve Tomkins

N09Icon.jpgIt's the place where loser comes before winner, ten comes before one and impotent comes before premature. It's the book that knows the meaning of every word and the value of none. Johnson's dictionary defined it as 'a book containing the words of any language' which is surely a bit vague, while Ambrose Bierce's defined it as a 'literary device for cramping the growth of a language'.

Samuel Johnson (who just turned 300 and so by the conventional absurdities of the media momentarily deserves scrutiny) did not write the first English dictionary, but his was for 178 years the definitive one - the dictionary that defined dictionaries, even if its definition of 'dictionary' left room for improvement.

It eclipsed the others by its comprehensiveness - both in words and definitions - and the consistency of Johnson's etymologically-based orthographical reforms. (Orthographical? Look it up.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, now being fully revised for the first time since it was published in 1928, has a staff of 120, plus 200 consultants and a budget of £34m for the revision. Johnson was paid 1500 guineas and his only help was from copyists. And his computer was very primitive.

Both, like all dictionaries, manage a balance between describing and prescribing language. Johnson censured bad words, like 'wabble'  (i.e. wobble), 'a low barbarous word', or excluded them altogether, while including obsolete words he thought worth reviving. His dictionary was an enlightenment project to impose rational order on the chaos of variant and inconsistent spellings. Yet, like political and religious reformers of his age, he was not aiming at progress, but to purge the system of modern corruptions, accepting traditional illogicalities like the spelling of 'high'/'height'.

The paradox is that the more a dictionary tries to assert its authority, the less it has. We turn to it as an impersonal, omniscient arbiter on meaning and spelling. It achieves this through the drudgery of cataloguing which words we are using and how we use them, and recycles this information back to us as an invaluable tool for coordinating our communication, ensuring that we use the same words in the same way. When it serves, it is king.

But when the OED tells us that 'supportative' is an 'unnecessary' word, 'redundantize' is 'fortunately rare' we are suddenly hearing not authority but an author.When it claims to tell us how words should be used, it becomes just another book offering a personal viewpoint to be agreed or disagreed with.

Johnson's patron the Earl of Chesterfield hoped that the dictionary would dictate the final shape of the language, but of course it is the shape of dictionaries that is dictated by the constantly changing language.

Which is what makes the dictionary a social barometer. Last month's new Collins included 'twittering', 'instant messaging',  'omg', 'wtf', 'meh', 'hmm', 'staycation' and 'off-grid'.

The digital age isn't just providing new vocabulary for dictionaries, but changing their world, like everything else. The ardours of reaching 15cm for my Concise Oxford and flicking can't compete with the instant power of Google. And Microsoft Word does my spelling for me. It reckons I should spell 'neighbour' without the 'u' - an annoying error that will probably become correct before too long. After all, Johnson would be annoyed with me for spelling 'error' without the 'u'. In other ways the effect of computer spellchecks could be more conservative: 'wobble' would presumably still be 'wabble' computers had been in charge.

Perhaps the days are numbered then for the big black book that was the basic requirement for the British family bookshelf, that gathered dust waiting to give meaning to anyone who could be bothered to get it down. And perhaps not.