Tom Sutcliffe: Don't lament these fine lexicographers

Social Studies: This news shouldn't be taken as a sign of cultural decay, but of metamorphosis
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What should we feel about the announcement that the Oxford English Dictionary may never again be published in book form? Or rather – since that "we" takes quite a lot for granted, what should anyone who cares about the English language and English literature feel? On the face of it, it sounds like an ominous crack in the façade, doesn't it?

Since 1928, when the first edition of the dictionary was finally completed – after 44 years of lexicographical graft – the dictionary has stood like a great civic building, a towering expression of scholarly seriousness in multiple volumes. It took them another 45 years to complete the Second Edition, and since 1989 a large team of lexicographers have been beavering away (verb, to work like a beaver, first citation 1946, from Time magazine), attempting to construct another temporary dam across the endlessly flowing river of the English language. Now, with less than a third of the work completed and completion estimated at being at least 10 years away, they learn that they may never make it. Or at least that the dam isn't going to be made of dead trees.

It isn't very surprising news really. In fact it's a little startling that you can still get it in book form at all. Amazon currently have it in stock (all 20 volumes) from £650 upwards, with a startlingly modest delivery cost of £2.75. But since you can also buy the entire thing on CD-Rom for £151.09, complete with the additional volumes (and 7,000 words they added after those were published), it's hard to imagine anyone but the most dedicated bibliophile shelling out the extra £500.

You get an upper body work-out thrown in for free, of course, and the ability to display your erudition in your living room – but you also lose on the almost magical ability of the CD-Rom version to let you browse from A to Z with just a click of the button. And even the CD-Rom version may now be an unnecessary luxury, given that in a lot of places the possession of a local library card will get you ready access to the OED Online, which is pretty much guaranteed to be the most up-to-date version of the dictionary in existence. The last update, in June of this year, marked the arrival of anilingus, caffe ristretto and spit-roast (the definition for which, rather wonderfully, included a citation from Roger's Profanisaurus, a rather more specialised work of scholarship).

This news shouldn't be taken as a sign of cultural decay, then – but of metamorphosis. Indeed, it might almost be celebrated as such. The OED was obliged to be a book first – to go through it's pupal stage wrapped in a carapace of pulped and patterned fibre – because no better technology was available. But now, at last, the chrysalis has split and it has emerged in the platonic form it was always tending towards, knowledge unweighted and dazzlingly accessible. This isn't the displacement of a great institution – as Wikipedia has effectively displaced the Encyclopedia Britannica – but its healthy evolution. You should look it up in one form or another – if you can – because it remains a national treasure, and it's better than it's ever been.

Haven't they heard of taxis?

Joe Cole must have been relieved that his driving disqualification for speeding was suspended pending an appeal. After all, with six points already on his licence and an alleged speed of 105mph at the time of the offence most motorists would have expected pretty stern treatment. In fact, most of us probably wouldn't have bothered with an appeal. Then again most of us wouldn't be able to afford to retain the services of Nick Freeman, a solicitor nicknamed Mr Loophole because of his ability to pick away at the loose threads in prosecution cases. One of the arguments he made in this instance was that Cole's wife, Carly Zucker, was too traumatised by a recent car-jacking to drive herself any longer and too famous to use public transport.

As I understand it famous people aren't actually formally prohibited from entering trains and buses, and there have been verified accounts of some of them successfully using these forms of transport to get from A to B now and then – but leaving that aside it seems odd that Mr Loophole – and the Staines magistrates – don't seem to have heard of taxis. These do, it's true, involve a limited amount of contact with non-famous strangers but if that proves too distressing I understand professional chauffeurs can be retained for a short period, and may even add a bit of lustre to your celebrity. It wouldn't be a feasible solution for everyone, but I'm guessing Joe Cole could afford it, even if he eventually has to pay his £750 fine.

Hazy vision in California

Talking of loopholes, a recent trip to Los Angeles confirmed that however Californians vote on Proposition 19 later this year ( the ballot initiative which aims to legalise and tax recreational use of marijuana) a de facto decriminalisation is already in place following the state's 1996 legalisation of marijuana for medical use. Wander down the Venice Beach boardwalk and, amongst the T-shirt shops and souvenir stalls, you will find several "dispensaries" – offering walk-in appointments so that those suffering from chronic arthritis or glaucoma (wink, wink) can receive both the necessary recommendation from a qualified physician and their "medicine" – available in different varietals, unlike more conventional pharmaceuticals.

An unscientific survey of those lined up in the open-fronted waiting rooms suggested an epidemic of qualifying diseases among slightly awkward-looking men under the age of 25. I don't know how rigorous the medical examination is – but I'm guessing that if you go in and say you've been suffering from extreme anxiety about how you're going to fill your next bong you may well find that the doctor prescribes medical marijuana as the clinically approved antidote. How long, I wonder, before the NHS borrows the cheery slogan of one of Venice Beach's walk-in clinics: "Weed love to help you".

For further reading : 'The Meaning of Everything', by Simon Winchester (OUP, 2003); 'Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages', by Ammon Shea (Perigee, 2008)