A big dictionary anniversary, and a smaller one

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Congratulations to Oxford University Press (OUP) on a special morning: it is publication day for the newest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, marking its 100th anniversary. The first edition was in 1911, and this is the 12th. But I also want to thank OUP for a personal kindness to me. Or rather to my dad, who was celebrating a smaller anniversary of his own.

It's not the first personal kindness OUP has done for users of the dictionary. In 1983 a lady sent them 15 ruined pages of her 6th-edition Concise Oxford that had been severely clawed by her cat. These pages were not usable. She was missing whole lexemes. She begged them to send her replacement pages, and said photocopies would be quite all right. By return, they told her that the 6th edition was now out of print and superseded, so they couldn't comply with her request. But they sent her a free copy of the new 7th edition, with a personal letter expressing the "hope that your cat will be less vicious with this one!"

The kindness to me involved my dad's birthday, August 7. He has just turned 89, and is still running an entire household complete with extensive gardens, and doing all shopping and cooking and cleaning himself (his house is in much better order than my flat). But in the odd bits of time he has free, he has become a fanatical crossword enthusiast. And he doesn't eschew the use of a dictionary for checking. His dictionaries are in use all the time, every day. And although he has others, he has no doubt whatever concerning which one is the best: he swears by the Concise Oxford. It's just more complete and generally more pleasant to use. The others are looked at sometimes but mostly set aside again in disappointment.

And quite frankly, his 2001 Concise Oxford looks as if the cat has been at it, only he doesn't have a cat. The book is absolutely trashed. The binding has almost completely fallen off. The pages are rubbed and creased. This dictionary, celebrating its tenth anniversary of use, is worn out. It has almost ceased to be. Yet still, I noticed during a mid-July visit, it is accessed several times every day (dad doesn't throw things out).

So with August 7 in mind, I got in touch with a contact in OUP's organization to ask a favor. I knew about the August 18 release date for the big-news centenary edition. Would it be possible, by any chance, that I could somehow obtain an advance copy, in time for a delivery to an address in Surrey, by August 7, so that my dad's birthday present from me could be a replacement for his worn and battered old edition? I would pay the full price and the freight; I just wanted to know whether the copies had arrived from the bindery, and whether I could get hold of one early.

There was a delay of a week (my contact had been away on holiday), but finally I received a discreet and guarded mumble about seeing what could be done. No guarantee. Only about a week remained, and my dad's birthday was on a Sunday. I didn't know if we could make it.

But on the morning of Saturday, August 6, in his isolated Surrey village (it's so rural down there that there are no house numbers, the mail carrier has to memorize house name sequences), he had in his hands a parcel direct from Oxford, with an advance copy of the new centenary edition and an accompanying commemorative booklet, with a card saying "Happy birthday from Geoff Pullum and Oxford University Press". He was thrilled.

The newspaper stories about today's release are all about new words, of course. It's the one aspect of dictionaries that they love. The new words in the 1911 edition (now mostly gone again) included biplane, brabble, foozle, growlery, kheda, and marconigram. New words in the 2011 edition include mankini, retweet, sexting, woot, and the now officially lexicalized phrases alternative vote and domestic goddess. (If there are any of these that are new to you, don't write to Language Log, just look 'em up in your Concise Oxford for heaven's sake. We're Language Log, not Free Word-Meaning Response Service Log.)

And when the Independent arrives in my dad's newspaper box this morning he'll be able to check on the correct spelling and OUP-sanctioned official existence of every single one, across or down.

The Independent's crossword is, of course, accessible online, and there is a site for online access to Oxford dictionaries, but although dad uses the Internet all the time for communication (no marconigrams arrive in his growlery), for newspapers he's mainly a hard-copy man. And for dictionaries too.

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