Keeping the O.E.D. Relevant?

by Emma Cueto

The Oxford English Dictionary has a reputation as the best, most comprehensive dictionary in the English speaking world, but it also has a reputation as being more for academics than regular folks.

That reputation isn't quite accurate, says the new chief editor, Michael Proffitt, who (unsurprisingly) claims that the dictionary still has a place in today's modern age, and not just in the ivory tower. “As much as I adhere to the O.E.D.’s public reputation,” he told the New York Times, “I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use.”

Despite the fact that Google definitions may well be more popular now than even web dictionaries like, Proffitt says that dictionaries' "time has come." Nowadays, “[p]eople need filters much more than they did in the past,” he explains. And he may have a point.

After all, we live in the age of information. Access to almost any text or image or audio clip or video is at our fingertips. Yet sorting that information is another matter entirely. The Internet's main organizing principle seems to be the Google algorithm that sorts search results. And as far as bringing us the search results we want, it's pretty darn good. As far as actually organizing information for us, putting it in a context or acting as a database... well, it's a bit lacking, which is unsurprising, considering that's not its purpose. So dictionaries and other reference materials are still vital.

If you don't believe me, just ask yourself if you'd rather have to look through search results and weigh sources for every search you made for basic information, or would you just prefer to keep Wikipedia bookmarked.

The O.E.D., unlike many other reference works, actually has fared pretty well so far in the digital age. At the very least, it hasn't collapsed in on itself like other reference works. An annual subscription still costs a lot of money, but an abridged version is available online for free as the Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary includes modern words like "phat" and "selfie," the latter being its 2013 Word of the Year. And Proffitt said he wants to continue exploring the potential of the world wide web to keep the O.E.D. relevant and useful.

So even though the dictionary is often seen as belonging mainly in the stuffy confines of academia, let's not forget that its mission to trace the evolution of language hasn't left out the most modern chapter. It's updated its definition of marriage, and has been useful in proving that modern offenses against the English language like "OMG" and "unfriended" are actually not as new you'd think. So maybe this wonderful dictionary really can be a part of millennials' lives after all. If in no other way, the O.E.D. is on Twitter.

Image: Fotolia