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Straight from the Lexicographer’s Mouth: An Enjoyable Talk about the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

A  report about a fascinating talk about the Oxford English Dictionary by Edmund Weiner

Cover of OED
The paperback edition is just the tip of the iceberg with a mere 120K words and 1k pages

Anyone who loves words would have been as rapt as we were at the Oxford Authors’ Alliance last night, when Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, came to talk to us about his work preparing version 2.0 of the OED. This mammoth task employs sixty people, and though it began in 1993, they’re still only 30% of the way through the task. They are effectively detectives, examining everything ever written in English to come up with comprehensive definitions of how every word has been used through the ages.

Our meeting place in the heart of Oxford couldn’t have been more apt – in the book-lined basement (affectionately referred to as “the Bunker”) of the maverick Albion Beatnik Bookshop. The walls are painted with words, and the ceiling is papered in printed pages of books, so we were totally immersed. I am kicking myself now for not taking photos, but the talk was so absorbing that I completely forgot.


Cover of Baby Baby
The first in Mari Howard’s compelling and intelligent series of contemporary novels about fertility science and medical ethics

We’d had the good fortune to be introduced to Edmund by his wife Clare, who writes novels under the pen-name Mari Howard. She is a member of both the Oxford Authors Alliance and the global Alliance of Independent Authors (of whose Self-publishing Advice blog I’m Commissioning Editor). She’s also a regular Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival author, where she has given readings of both her prose and poetry and taken part in lively panel discussions. Edmund has always come along to support her and enjoy the Festival, and it’s been a pleasure to have him open up now about his own important work with the basic components of the author’s craft: words.


Edmund is what’s known as a historical lexicographer, defining words by tracing their origins and history and cataloging their changing use as time goes by, because, as he pointed out, our language is constantly evolving. This fact makes him reassuringly dismissive of any notions of rights and wrongs in its use.


Of course, in the early days of dictionaries (with which most of us are chiefly familiar from the episode of Blackadder III in which Baldrick uses Samuel Johnson‘s only draft of his first dictionary to light the fire) everything was done by hand and on paper. These days, records are all online, which provides an endless canvas for our endlessly expanding language: 600,000 words and counting, and no word is ever removed.

AND FINALLY… The Fascinating Evolution of the Word “Toilet”

Bottle of perfume labelled eau de toilette
No, not THAT sort of toilet water!

Apparently anyone with a library card may access the OED online free of charge (another great reason to support your local public library), but there are also some public pages freely available that, now I’ve discovered them, I expect to prove highly addictive. One of the highlights of Edmund’s fascinating talk last night was when he read to us his essay on the descent of the word “toilet” – particularly helpful to me as I recently struggled to answer my daughter’s question as to why anyone would want to splash “toilet water” on themselves.

Here’s a link to his must-read article for you to enjoy:

Recent Updates to the OED: The definition of “toilet”

I’m hoping we’ll hear more from Edmund Weiner about our fascinating language at a future Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival – watch this space!

With thanks to Edmund Weiner, Clare Weiner/Mari Howard, the Albion Beatnik Bookshop, and Oxford Authors Alliance organiser Lynne Pardoe, who, by the way, has just launched her second novel in her series about social work, Abandoned by My Mum, now available as an ebook via Amazon for just £2.25).




English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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