Big Dictionary Energy

Compact editions of the DNB and OED in shabby slipcases.

Dictionaries. I was twenty-five when I acquired my first big one: a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two hefty volumes. I can still remember the discomfort of carrying the cumbrous tomes the twenty minutes' walk home from Blackwell’s bookshop in Cardiff. Relative to my disposable income at the time they had been expensive - but I considered them to be an investment in words, and expected they’d last me half a lifetime.

Twenty years later I gave them to my Dad. He was looking for something to help him tackle the newspaper’s daily crossword, and, while the SOED was more dictionary than he needed, it seemed surplus to my own requirements. After all, times had changed such that my library card gave me access to the entire on-line edition of the ever-growing, ever-changing Oxford English Dictionary, which, if a frozen snapshot of it were to be printed, might easily fill two dozen even heftier volumes.

Even so, when I happened upon a micrographically-printed ‘compact’ edition of the original OED in a Chepstow junkshop a few months later I did not resist the absurd compulsion to take it home. It was a ridiculous and gratuitous purchase, but it was also a very cheap one at only £5 for the two volumes, their tatty slipcase and the plastic hand-held magnifier to facilitiate reading the tiny, tiny print.

The absurdity was assuaged when, within a year of that purchase, local government budget cuts obliged local libraries here to withdraw access to the online OED. I no longer felt quite so foolish in holding on to my really big dictionary. In the meantime it had been joined on the shelf by a similarly ‘compact’ edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, also in two volumes, cased & with a magnifier, which an ebay seller had parted with for about £25.

It’s relatively seldom that I have recourse to either reference, yet it comforts me somehow to have all of that information available off-line, should it be needed. Having acquired the DNB I then sought out a further five (regular-sized) supplementary volumes that had post-dated it, but pre-dated the work’s once-controversial second edition. More recently still, a copy of the original Compact OED’s supplementary third volume turned up at my local charity shop, for which the asking price was all of £2.