Apr 20, 2010

The Meaning of Everything

Is that a great title, or what? It's what Simon Winchester called his history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and a fitting title it turns out to be.

Visionaries, among them Samuel Coleridge, put the project in motion in 1860, but it was James Augustus Henry Murray who rescued it from chaotic enthusiasm. Sir James patiently set forth a system in which slips of paper would be received from correspondents located in every English-speaking country on the planet (mostly England and America), their contents logged and eventually compiled in the greatest multi-volume publishing enterprise ever undertaken. Its release in 1928, an astonishing 68 years later, was celebrated with an epic dinner for 150 guests, lovingly described in the pages of this lavishly illustrated gem.

What did it take to find every word in the English language and give it a proper definition? Read the book and find out. Don't be surprised to learn that diplomacy was necessary to maintain funding for the massive project, the kind that policitians then and now would call folly, or pork-barrel.

I was struck by the similarity to the Open Directory Project, where I was a volunteer editor for seven years. The infighting, the flashes of brilliance, the dogged determination to keep at it despite the inevitable irritation that comes from working closely with a lot of brilliant and often eccentric people, each of whom is generally convinced that they know what is right, if only everyone else would listen - the Oxford English Dictionary had all of these things just as the ODP does today.

I resigned from the ODP, also known as DMOZ, to devote more time to what we online denizens humorously call Real Life. The sobriquet is so widely used that it's often seen in its short form, RL. I can just imagine an OED contributor in, say, New Zealand in 1890, telling his wife "I'll be in to dinner in just a moment, dear, just as soon as I finish this definition for zymurgy. (Goodness, real life can be such a bother when there is so much important work to be done.)"

If it weren't for compulsively addicted people like my hypothetical Kiwi, things like the Oxford English Dictionary and DMOZ would never be attempted, let alone completed. Let's hear it for the hapless souls who sacrifice RL for all the grand schemes that seem impossible, and yet somehow reach fruition. Hear, hear!

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