The Oxford English Dictionary throws a 90th birthday party

Recycling content, highlighting historical employees and calling for contributions, the English language’s leading lexicon celebrates its past with a ‘globular organ of sight’ to the future.

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I first discovered the Oxford English Dictionary when I was a 17-year-old exchange student in Sydney, living with a family in which both parents were academics.

In their overburdened bookcases they kept the great lexicon, boxed with a magnifying glass, because the publisher had shrunk the entire multivolume set into two volumes printed in a minuscule font more suited to a newspaper for ants.

The OED—which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year—traced even the simplest words to such distant roots, they were not even recognizable as English. I remember encountering the word “break,” and finding a citation from about the year 1000 of Psalm 2:9, which in Old English reads, Swa swa fæt tigelen ðu bricst hi (“You will break them with a rod of iron”).

A dictionary’s birthday probably doesn’t merit an all-employee communiqué. It won’t crowd your town hall meeting off the calendar, nor take the place of the latest diversity initiative. For those of us who spend so much of our time with words, however, it is worth revisiting this magnificent work.

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