Richard Charkin: A Very Short History of the New Oxford English Dictionary

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

In today’s installment in his exclusive series for Publishing Perspectives, Richard Charkin recounts the development of ‘one of the great digital projects of our time.’

Volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Image: CC BY 2.0

By Richard Charkin

‘When £250,000 Was £250,000’
In publishing pre-history (1975 to 1988), I was working at Oxford University Press.

Richard Charkin

In 1979, for reasons best known to senior management, I was asked to write a paper on how to improve the press’s finances through publishing better. The paper was predictably entitled 1984. One of its recommendations was that we should unify the publication of reference works into a single unit with a single head. Lo and behold, I put myself forward for that role and was appointed head of reference in around 1980, aged 31.

My first task was to deal with the horrendous losses incurred by the flagship project to complete and publish the four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary begun in 1957 and costing the best part of £250,000 a year (when £250,000 was £250,000) and little prospect of ever earning back the investment.

I’m no historian—and there are some excellent accounts of the following five years from other members of the team and some independent scholars—but here are some of my imperfect memories of what was to become one of the first great digital scholarly endeavors.

‘The Technology Not Quite Right’

It was clear that a dictionary which came in those three alphabetical slabs–the original 12 volumes completed in 1928, the first supplement in 1933, and now this monstrous additional supplement–needed to have its editions integrated into a single alphabetical sequence: an enormous and very expensive task. We titled the project variously the New OED, the Computerization of the OED, or, more simply, OED 2E.

My then-boss, general book publisher Robin Denniston, proposed that we should undertake the last cut-and-paste job of the 20th century. We would cut up the various editions, stick the bits down on sheets of paper, paste the paper with cow gum, and then turn the page into film ready for printing. The idea was good, the technology not quite right–even for the 20th century. It was obvious that we need an electronic file which could be manipulated to merge, purge, and reformat for print and eventual digital distribution.

We toyed with the idea of finding the paper tape which had been used to drive the typesetting of some of the volumes. It had disappeared. We tried a very new Kurzweil technology for optical character recognition but it was unreliable.

We would have to re-key the whole thing from scratch at enormous–and at the time unaffordable–cost.

Step Forward Some Heroes
  • Bob Corwin was a rep for IBM telephone exchanges. We had launched a marketing campaign called Oxford Word and Language Service (OWLS), which still is in use. Any purchaser of an Oxford dictionary can ask questions of one of the OED lexicographers—a sort of after-sales service.
  • Bob thought the number of calls would require us to buy a new exchange. He came to see me in Oxford and I explained that we’d rather get money from IBM than spend it with them. He agreed to pass the request up the chain, which he did, ultimately resulting in our receiving £2 million in computers and code writing from John Fairclough, then managing director of IBM UK.
  • Lord (Fred) Dainton was chairman of the British Library and a close adviser to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. He persuaded her to instruct the department of trade and industry to award us a seed figure of £350,000, which not only helped catalyze the project but also persuaded others to join in.
  • Sir Rex Richards was vice chancellor of Oxford University and a director of IBM. He supported the project in spite of the financial risks.
  • Hans Nickel, managing director of International Computaprint Corporation (ICC, then part of Reed International), agreed to typeset the whole thing at a ridiculously low cost in order to have an involvement and to prove his double-keying technology—which incidentally resulted in fewer errors than the original and obviated the need for more than one proofreading, thus saving several hundred thousand pounds.
  • Umberto Eco and Philip Larkin immediately agreed to serve on an advisory board and add glamour to the project.
  • Doug Wright, head of the University of Waterloo, understood the project immediately and dedicated a top team of software engineers from his university to undertake the task of creating parsing software to integrate the various editions. And he managed to extract some money from a Vancouver millionairess to fund it.
  • And internal heroes were many. The two editors, John Simpson  and Ed Weiner; the senior management; the IT department; and the absolutely vital project manager, Tim Benbow, who had recently returned to Oxford from running OUP in Nigeria and brought order and efficiency.
The Risk of Doing Nothing

There were of course obstacles along the way.

“Without a courageous organization committed to publishing and courageous people in academe and technology, the OED would have decayed into a printed fossil.”Richard Charkin

The then-editor of the OED, Bob Burchfield, did his best to block the project on the grounds that computers couldn’t replace human beings.

A professor of English literature insisted that we update all the citations before issuing a new edition, an absolutely huge task that would have delayed the project by decades.

A famous academic thought that the dangers of electronic piracy were so great that we shouldn’t contemplate creating a digital version at all.

A senior member of the finance committee thought the risk-reward ratio was out of kilter and was only persuaded when it was pointed out that the original OED would be out of copyright shortly and thus we would lose control of our greatest intellectual property asset unless we adapted it in some way. In other words, the risk of doing nothing was more damaging than the risk of doing something new.

One of the Great Digital Projects of All Time

In any event, the project started in 1981 and was completed within budget and on schedule in 1989.

As Walton Litz of Princeton University and an adviser to the project told Time magazine, “I’ve never even heard of a project that was so incredibly complicated and that met every deadline.”

There will probably never be a third printed edition, but the online edition is in great health, builds every year, extends our understanding of English, our linguistic and cultural history, and stands as one of the great digital projects of all time.

Without a courageous organization committed to publishing and courageous people in academe and technology, the OED would have decayed into a printed fossil.

I’m proud to have played a part in this project and to have this opportunity to say thank you to all those who contributed–and apologies to those not mentioned because of my failing memory.

Editor’s note: This year, the Oxford English Dictionary is in its 90th anniversary. In June, the New Oxford English Dictionary added more than 900 new words, among them several from another work first published in 1928, AA Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ New entries include ‘Eeyore,’ ‘heffalump,’ and ‘a bear of little brain.’ –Porter Anderson

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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’