A press release circulated with that dictionary earlier this week declared that it is now permissible to split the infinitive. The result was a rash of horrified stories in the media, and a pleasing amount of publicity for Oxford University Press's newest product.
Never mind that Chambers, Oxford's sworn rival in the dictionary market, made a similar pronouncement two years ago.
Battle has been joined in the cerebral world of lexicography. Yesterday was publication day for the New Oxford. Next Monday, the brand new edition of Chambers hits the bookshops. Next month sees the updated Collins English Dictionary.
The timing chosen by the three leading publishers is not coincidental. Competition has never been so fierce, and this is a crucial period, with the academic year beckoning and Christmas a few months away.
It is a lucrative market - five million dictionaries are sold annually - and the latest skirmish centres on the most profitable part of it: middle- range volumes, the "household" size used by families, crossword lovers and Scrabble fanatics.
Talking of Scrabble, who would have thought that a cosy board game would end up as a lethal marketing weapon?
One of the principal boasts of the Chambers dictionary is that it is the game's official reference source. The Shorter Oxford surrendered that accolade 10 years ago when it took the ill-advised step of splitting into two unwieldy volumes.
Chambers is the middle-range market leader, but others are snapping at its heels. Perhaps it is defensiveness that makes it brag that its revised version offers "the richest range of the English language from Shakespeare to the present day".
The claims of its competitors are equally absurd. Collins calls itself "the people's dictionary", and portentously describes its updated volume as the "millennium edition". The new Oxford hails itself "a landmark in the description of English".
Updates take place with increasing frequency. The middle-range Chambers, for example, is now revised every five years, reflecting the speed with which language evolves as well as the improved technology for collecting and tracking words.
Dictionaries are similar to baked beans, according to David Swarbrick, marketing director of Oxford Dictionaries. "In this most academic area of publishing, brand is of foremost importance," he said. "This is true of all consumers, regardless of whether they regard a dictionary as a utilitarian product, a work of great scholarship or a method of intellectual hygiene."
John Millington, marketing manager at Chambers, is unabashed about using aggressive or attention-grabbing promotional tactics. He reels off unusual words found in the latest edition, professing a personal attachment to "corsned" - a piece of bread or cheese once believed to prove guilt if it stuck in the throat during a "trial by ordeal". He also lists endorsements by celebrities such as Michael Palin ("I'd be lost without my Chambers") and Claire Rayner ("Not only do top readers recommend it and lawyers advocate it, but agony aunts adore it").
Even the lexicographers in their rarified world are aware of the pressures of an increasingly cut-throat market. Judy Pearsall, who compiles for Oxford University Press, says research shows that clarity of entries is of pivotal importance.
It is all a far cry from the world of Samuel Johnson, who slaved away in a Gough Street attic to compile the first dictionary. Johnson would have disapproved of the latest grammatical edict on split infinitives. "I do not teach men how to think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts," he wrote.
He was, however, addressing only the most literate. "Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable," he wrote. "This fugitive cant cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language."
Review, page 4
THE RIVALS: HOW THEY STACK UP
DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH
350,000 words, phrases and definitions
Foremost authority and most comprehensive
Liberal guide to grammar; many proper names
Dweeb, wonk, G-spot Tamagotchi, phwoah
215,000 references and 300,000 definitions
Largest and most
Official reference guide for scrabble
An absolute delight
Voted the world's best dictionary
Usage notes; places; brief biographies
180,000 references, 196,000 definitions
Foremost authority and best-selling
Usage notes; 10 meanings given for "the"
Wonk, phwoah, G-spot
expensive but reliable
250,000 entries and
More words than any other concise dictionary
Good value, basic; no worse for thatReuse content