Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The World's Greatest Dictionary' Goes Online

Juliet New explains the background to the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary, launched on the 14 March 2000.

On 14 March 2000 the Oxford English Dictionary Online will be launched on the world-wide web at www.oed.com. On view will be the full text of the 20-volume hardcover dictionary - 60 million words describing nearly three-quarters of a million terms used in English over the past thousand years, illustrated by more than 2.4 million quotations - in a format developed for maximum accessibility.

The arrival of what many have called ‘the world’s greatest dictionary’ on the world-wide web is important news for scholars and researchers working in universities and libraries throughout the world. But there is more to this story than just introducing the 150-year-old dictionary to 21st century technology. The OED is currently undergoing a 20-year, £35 million/$55 million revision project - the first complete revision since the OED was originally completed in 1928. The first research findings from the project will be published, including a 1000-entry section (’M’ - ‘MAH’) now fully revised, rewritten, and updated; plus more than 9,000 words researched over the last decade now included in the full text for the first time. 3,000 more words will be added to the OED Online at quarterly intervals during 2000. Thereafter thousands more words will be added until the revision - perhaps the world’s biggest humanities research project - is completed in 2010. Although it is still in its early stages, Chief Editor, John Simpson, believes that the revision could double the length of the Dictionary.

So what does the OED Online offer researchers and inquirers that the hardcover dictionary could not? A traditional reference work is tied to searching by headword, whereas an online work provides a host of different ways of searching for useful information. The complete 60 million-word text can be searched for any word, and synonyms can also be found. It is as easy to search for John Lennon as Shakespeare, and you can look for rap lyrics alongside quotations from the Bible. Look for 1066 and you will find 20 quotations for such words as ‘wardwite’ and ‘infangthief’. Search for Urdu and more than 200 words will appear that are loanwords from that language. Have fun with wildcards by entering zx and find how many words have both letters in that order - a boon for crossword-lovers. If you can think of something that you don’t know the word for, use the proximity search and you may be able to find it – discover that the spot on your shoulder blade that is sometimes difficult to scratch is called an ‘acnestis’. Search for suffixes, and find new ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’. And if you thought that ‘.. as a picture’ was the only way to be pretty, then look again - you can be ‘pretty as a tickle-ass’ too!

OED Online has been created by a team of over 300 staff and others who contribute to the editing of the Dictionary around the world, including around sixty editors and research assistants based in Oxford, many freelance contributors, over 200 specialist consultants and advisers in universities and businesses, and staff in dictionary projects around the world. All who create the Dictionary are in daily communication with others throughout the world, tracking the development of the language, and sharing information about it. The arrival of the Dictionary online will create another dialogue - that of the dictionary-makers with those who create and use the English language. Six months ago OED editors initiated a new drive to acquire new words, and fresh information about etymology and the history and usage of the language, from scholars world-wide. That appeal has already brought in more than 1000 submissions. Editors are hoping that the online dictionary will put them just an email away from word-enthusiasts, scholars and others who are searching old texts and online databases, and who will be able to provide useful new information for the OED. Ariadne readers who are interested in helping the OED can find a submission form on the web site at www.oed.com.

The cost of OED Online has been developed to take into account the type, size, nature, and geographical location of the institutional buyer. List prices for higher education institutions, library authorities, organizations, and companies start from £1000/$1600 per annum for unlimited network access to the wealth of information contained in the OED, and four quarterly updates of at least 1000 new words. However deals currently being negotiated with library and other institutional consortia will bring much lower prices. The price of OED Online reflects the cost of keeping the Dictionary up to date, but the benefits of continual revision and multi-user access are considerable. Different price bands will apply for institutions in non-English-speaking countries, and in developing countries; and licences for individuals accessing the service at home will be available, but most access to the dictionary will continue to be through libraries.

Accessibility has been the main aim of those whose task it has been to design the OED for the web. Creating a web site that lets the reader navigate with ease through the wealth of material was the chief objective. A page of the print edition of the Dictionary can appear very intimidating to a new reader. In contrast, the internet offers unlimited space and the medium can be more than two-dimensional. First appearances have been kept as simple and clear as possible - the reader is led directly into the Dictionary content, and shown the meanings and descriptions of each word without any of the technical apparatus used by scholars. It is still all there, but it does not intrude on the reader who wants relevant details rapidly. For scholars we have made the various elements of the Dictionary’s content as accessible and as useful as possible.

Work on putting the Dictionary online began in during the mid 1980s, and the OED won the Applications Award of the British Computer Society in 1987. The challenge was not the length of the Dictionary, but its complexity and the importance of maintaining the structure of this historically important, century-old text, rather than adapting it to make software design easier. Aside from the huge number of characters (over 1,000) needed to cope with the hundreds of languages in the OED, normal computer-based rules for alphabetical order are too simple, so special rules had to be devised. The OED Design and Production team spent two years devising different working models and testing them with potential users. When the design was completely refined, HighWire Press, an enterprise unit of Stanford University Libraries, was brought on board as a technical partner. Two years were spent in market research and testing designs with potential users in the USA and UK. HighWire Press’s experience in giving technical support to the internet editions of over 170 scholarly journals has proved invaluable in creating OED Online. The OED Design and Production team provided the data in SGML. HighWire Press built a system in Java which uses the Verity search engine to search the Dictionary, a Sysbase database for data storage, and their own SGML to HTML parser to produce HTML pages. After three years’ very hard work, our deadline has been met, and we launch on 14 March.

How can you look at the OED Online? A free tour is available now on www.oed.com/tour. We hope that the OED Online will be in your university and local library this year. We are sure Ariadne readers will find OED Online useful, and would welcome your views.

Author Details

Juliet New
Oxford English Dictionary Marketing