What It All Means

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The word freaks at the Oxford English Dictionary have long had a reputation for being snobsexhaustive snobs, with something of a completist obsession, but snobs all the same. To say that they’ve been challenged on multiple fronts in recent decades would perhaps be an understatement, and as James Gleick writes in The New York Review of Books blog, the OED’s mission has gotten all the more complicated (and comprehensive) thanks to its roomy new digs in cyberspace.

I’ll confess to being a dictionary obsessive. I own at least a dozen, including a 12-volume set of the OED, the two volume unabridged (with magnifying glass), and an unabridged Webster’s that requires a sturdy stand. I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I consult a dictionary at least once a day, and a search for the meaning or etymology of a particular word will often lead to an hour spent wending my way along sidetracks and stumbling into interestingif uselesscul-de-sacs.

That said, when it comes to words and their meanings there may be such a thing as too much information. Samuel Johnson understood this when he more or less singlehandedly produced his own enduring, and remarkably succinct, contribution to lexicography in 1755.  Gleick also clearly understands this, and his piece, in fact, addresses the recent OED regime’s obsession with that single word: “Information.”

“In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for information’ is utterly overhauled,” Gleick observes.

The renovation has turned a cottage into a palace. Information, n., now runs 9,400 words, the length of a novella. It is a sort of masterpiece–an adventure in cultural history. A century ago “information” did not have much resonance. It was a nothing word. “An item of training; an instruction.” Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which, by the way, the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: “the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.”

Through those 9,400 words the OED editors track “information” from its humble origins to its current status as a teeming metropolis of meaning, and as fascinating as that journey can be at times, it’s also exhaustive to the point of exhausting.

Gleick quotes an attempt by Michael Proffitt, the OED‘s managing editor, to justify the dictionary’s aggressive approach to blowing out the definition of “information,” even at the risk of leeching the word of all real meaning:

What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word which provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED‘s editors and readers.

That paragraphtroubling on so many different levelssays about all you need to know about both the current state of our language and the slowly eroding “imaginative sympathy” that exists between the OED‘s editors and readers.

Source: The New York Review of Books Blog

Image by Cofrin Library, licensed under Creative Commons

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