BOOK REVIEW / No ra-ra skirts, no Mars bars: 'The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary' - Ed Lesley Brown: Oxford, 60 pounds

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THE USE of the comparative term 'shorter', in the original 1933 abridgement of the OED, is supposed to have been a donnish joke, as if the 16-volume dictionary could conceivably have been called short in the first place. In fact the old Shorter was quite tall: its two volumes achieved a slimness and elegance that gave it a fine air of much-in-little, of scholarly encapsulation. The New Shorter is downright buxom.

Let's be careful here. Being from the Old English bugan, to bend, which also gives us 'bow', buxom used to mean obliging or literally pliable, but this is no paperback and it does not come skipping lightly to hand when wanted. By association, buxom went on to signify lively or gay. I don't mean that either. What the word has come to stand for, through constant reference to a certain pleasing type of woman, is 'plump and comely', which is more the sort of thing I had in mind.

The Oxford editors do not agree with Anthony Burgess that the word nowadays means simply 'big-breasted', though as far as popular usage goes Burgess may have the better of them. For describing a book in this way I can claim the precedent of Martin Amis, who once pictured Stalin's crimes as filling a 'buxom ledger'.

The New Shorter does not cite this example, as it is an unconventional one, but Amis is quoted often enough on other pages. So are Iris Murdoch, A N Wilson, A S Byatt, Anita Brookner and Ruth Rendell, which may tell us something about the sort of people who send in the material that keeps the Oxford project going.

This edition began life in 1980 with the work being done on 6 inch by 4 inch paper slips. Around the letter I, the new OED became available on computer, so that programs (the dictionary now enforces this spelling) could be written to do much of the cutting and restructuring of entries automatically, while the editors tried to keep pace with the development of English.

Nevertheless, new or even newish words seem to have given them problems. We can look up mezzanine financing and neural networks but not animatronics. Majorism, a non-word if ever I heard one, has famously made its last-minute appearance, and Wilsonian is there as applied to grave Woodrow or tricksy Harold, but Kennedyesque, a term frequently used by journalists wishing to describe politicians' attempts at charisma, is deemed not to exist. Wimpy burgers and Ryvita are on the table, but the Mars bar has been held back as if to discourage some lexical sweet tooth. And whatever happened to Hovis?

Future generations curious to know exactly how ridiculous their ancestors looked when young will have no trouble finding out what hot pants or loons were, but the ra-ra skirt, though already a prized period detail in novels, will remain forever a tantalising mystery to them, which is a much better fate than it deserves.

The old Shorter certainly needed fixing. It was remarkable how often it missed the modern sense of a word, even in the clumsily tacked-on Addenda. It caught up with 'funky' for fashionable but it still thought 'nigger' was no worse than 'colloq. and usu. contempt.'. The condition of meltdown, nuclear or financial, was undreamt of in its philosophy and it insisted as late as its final 1973 revision that 'bra' was a jocular Americanism not found in general use. This fustiness was sometimes part of its charm, but it was becoming like the learned judge who peers over his hornrims to ask counsel what is meant by 'Walkman'.

A sad change is the dropping of precise dates for first recorded use. Where the old Shorter would confidently claim a word was born in 1636 the new gives a vague 'Ml7' for mid-17th century. Perhaps this is to admit that these dates were always a touch fictitious. Dictionaries were an invention of the encyclopaedic age when the universe was finite and static, when Johnson could intend his work to 'fix' the language for good, and when it was believed that ultimately everything could be known. Despite its solidity the New Shorter cannot pretend to be more than just one possible printout from a much vaster, perpetually changing and mostly electronic record. It may also be significant that the formidable learning on which the dictionary's prestige depends is British but the technology now required to manage it is American.

Most lexicographers are gender-shy and loth to point out that personal insults like jerk, wimp, nerd or bastard apply strictly to men. The Oxford team is no different. They must be alone, though, in refusing to admit that a Spitfire really has to be female. And oddly they derive the fighter plane's name from the long-obsolete meaning of a cannon, not the modern one of a beautiful girl with a temper and a mean right hook which the machine actually evokes. They must be relying on the Oxonian reputation to persuade us they have checked this with the Vickers- Supermarine company's board minutes for 1936. I wonder if they have.

More copper-bottomed etymologies like 'wheel', traced back to the Sanskrit cakra through the Old Norse hjol and Greek kyklos, are all there, of course, set out with more clarity and compression than before so that, despite the historical practice of placing oldest meanings first, which can slow down a search and make one liable to reach for the Collins instead, the New Shorter is a deal easier to use than its predecessor. A lot of people who like to know where their words have been will have to have it.