Oxford English Dictionary, or O.E.D., reportedly has a new chief editor for the first time in 20 years, and one who comes with a vision of retaining acclaimed traditions at the revered publication while making it relevant in a world dominated by the Internet and its impact on modern-day language.
“My idea about dictionaries is that, in a way, their time has come,” Michael Proffitt told the New York Times. “People need filters much more than they did in the past,” he said, adding: “As much as I adhere to the O.E.D.’s public reputation,” he said, “I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use.”
Currently, the O.E.D is probably more respected than used, the Times noted, adding that a copy of the 20-volume second edition costs $995 while a one-year digital subscription is priced at $295. The price is considered prohibitive in today’s world of free online research tools.
“A lot of the first principles of the O.E.D. stand firm, but how it manifests has to change, and how it reaches people has to change,” Proffitt told the Times, which noted that the O.E.D has managed to survive the Internet onslaught but is yet to profit from the major online audiences.
And, perhaps Proffitt's hope to market and popularize the dictionary to a new generation might not be too ambitious if we consider the fact that many historical quotations in the dictionary show that some of the most popular terms of the Internet era actually date back decades or even centuries.
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For instance, the term “OMG,” which is an abbreviation for the expression “Oh, my God!” was first recorded in a letter to Winston Churchill by admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher, back in 1917, who wrote: “"I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G (Oh! My! God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!"
Not only this, the term “Literally” used figuratively goes back to 1876, when Mark Twain used it in his book “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” where a line read: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”
The word “Unfriend” thought to be born with Facebook in 2004 actually first appeared in 1659 in Thomas Fuller's book, “The Appeal of Injured Innocence,” in which a line reads: “that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.”
And, the fashionable retort, “Whatever," which according to the O.E.D. usually implies boredom with a topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning, is 41 years old, and was reportedly first used in 1973 “To our Returned Prisoners of War” (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever.