Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of the Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia

I just finished reading The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), an excellent book for any lover of words or person otherwise interested in the history of lexicography, but likely too pedantic for the casual reader.

Conceived in 1857 not completed until 1928, the gargantuan twelve-volume OED remains the preeminent English language dictionary to this day. The Professor and the Madman is the tale of how Dr. William Chester Minor, a schizophrenic American surgeon, committed a murder in England, which resulted in his confinement in an English lunatic asylum for most of the remainder of his very long life. This unfortunate circumstance created the conditions under which a brilliant (if delusional) man, now confined to a cell, could spend virtually every waking moment reading and gathering quotations to support the definitions in the "big dictionary." Dr. Minor's contributions were on a scale unmatched by other volunteer readers involved in the project.

On page 106, one passage caught my attention. Dr. R.C. Trench, who first proposed the idea of creating a comprehensive dictionary of all the words in English (as opposed to previous dictionaries, which were collections of only rare and unusual words, often with highly biased definitions), suggested that in order to gather and define all the words, it would be necessary to read all the books.

"The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature--and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals--must be instead 'the combined action of many.' It would be necessary to recruit a team--moreover, a huge one--probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers."

That was a radical idea in 1857. Literally and literarily world-shaking. However, that was indeed how the project went forth. It would have been impossible any other way.

But the real reason this passage stuck in my mind was the revelation that the OED, one of the most respected, authoritative sources in the English language, was produced at least in part by hordes of "unpaid amateurs."

The OED was the Wikipedia of its day.

Scholars scoff at Wikipedia. While it is true that ignorant or malicious people can add errors to Wikipedia, it is no less true that errors make it into print encyclopedias. Even peer-reviewed journals have been hoodwinked, and their back issues are sullied with the occasional article based on falsified research. On the whole, I have found Wikipedia to be quite good, never the end of a research project, but often a worthy start.

Of course, Winchester did not make the OED-Wikipedia connection in his book, since The Professor and the Madman was written well before Wikipedia's creation. However, it's impossible for me not to ponder this matter. Wikipedia is very young. It has the potential to become a comprehensive bank of all world knowledge. If the academic world were to embrace Wikipedia, if more scholars and researchers were to join the ranks of editors to improve both the quantity and the quality of the information in the articles, Wikipedia could evolve.

If the greatest dictionary in the world was produced from the efforts of an army of volunteers, why not the greatest encyclopedia in the world?

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