I Want my OED (or “Etymology for Nothing and Web Access for Free”)

Video never did kill the radio star, but there may be a very serious casualty in the smackdown between the World Wide Web and what we old timers call the “durable media.”

Of all the great crushes in my life — Chris in 5th grade, the subject of my first boy-on-boy dream (complete with, no joke, a roaring fireplace); Justin in 7th grade, who I would surreptitiously photograph at Camp Tamarack; Paul in high school, my little brother’s YMCA swimming instructor, who I never missed sight of changing in the locker room — the one that stands out above all others is the one I met in college. An English professor introduced us. I was at once captivated by his plain language and vast knowledge; his masculine, somewhat earthy scent; his perfectly straight spine; his thin, delicate pages; his minuscule, seemingly boundless print.

What hope did I have? How could I possibly resist this true, this pure, this urgent love? I was hopelessly lost from the moment I parted those covers to examine “gun” and “hangnail” and “nickname” and other marvels.

Yet there will come a time when those hardcover multi-volume memories are all I have left. I fear that I will never see the great love of my life — the Oxford English Dictionary — in its third edition in printed form.

Oh, for how long have I dreamed of wrapping myself bodily around its two dozen volumes! Of running my fingers along its stiff, bony edges. Of digging the sharp corners of its perfect, tight binding into my softly pliant flesh! Of inhaling the musky perfumery of inks on thousands upon thousands of translucent leaves!

A recent visit to the OED Web site rudely wrestled me from such dizzying passions. Intending to confirm the third edition’s publishing date, I was shocked instead to learn that plans had changed dramatically since my last visit. The FAQ stated unmistakably that the revisions currently underway for the third edition will not be completed until 2037.

Two thousand.


I will turn 61 years old that year.

The OED contains the history of the meaning of every blessed word in the English language, which includes by default a fair number of words from other languages, traced all the way back to their first recorded usage. It is the bible of my sacred tongue. An essential (and significantly large) part of the history of human thought itself. Few have anticipated the Second Coming with as much fervor as I have waited for this edition.

The second edition contains more than 300,000 words. Apparently more than 4,000 words are added every year. The OED will effectively double in size by the time the third edition is complete. There is no dictionary more well-endowed.

But the second edition is riddled with supplements and additions, a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled volumes.


The complete CD-ROM edition is not available for Macintosh.


And a subscription to the online service, perhaps the most bearable option, is unaffordable. Libraries in the UK and Ireland offer remote access for free, but the New York Public Library does not. (So much for one of the greatest knowledge institutions of the world.)

Rat bastards!

Unthinkably, there may not even be be a printing of the third edition! Can you imagine a 40-volume dictionary? In type too small for my old ass to read? What is the point of literacy? What is the point of living?


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