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The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the greatest and least celebrated of cultural achievements. It’s a source of information, education and entertainment– as the BBC is supposed to be, and for which it receives a vast public subsidy running into billions of pounds per year — though the OED is perhaps not one most people would spend the evening on the sofa with.

I just realized that as a student I can probably get access to it again in the university library and, if I am lucky, at home. My affection for the library increased yesterday too when, after they sent me an email demanding that I return books that very day, I logged in and clicked on Renew my loans thereby saving myself a trip. Shoot me in my absence I said, recalling Brendan Behan’s line

I was courtmartialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could…

perhaps because librarians can be scary people, even if they can’t keep the most famous Internet site reminding us of this online (I am not making it up).

Alas, the OED in all its online glory is something largely confined to those who can both afford and choose to pay the costly annual fees. ‘Tis a pity as it was a labour of love and a monument to distributed collaboration long before Wikipedia (on the OED), that deeply suspect source which gives some professors the vapours. Some of the OED’s playfulness and erudition can be sampled for free here. The whole thing is now so large it may never be printed again, except in abbreviated form. How the OED got Shorter is, something I’ve yet to read but The Making of the OED, The Meaning of Everything (full text from Google or order from Amazon) were delightful.

One of my minor accomplishments was to enable online access to the OED for thousands of people working in scientific research organizations around the world. Those from cricket-playing nations were, perhaps unsurprisingly, more inclined to use it when stumped for a word than to use Google or free American web sites. Most others seemed to think “If you have Google* and Microsoft who needs the OED?” Yes, there are free alternatives such as this and and this and this but if you’ve ever used the real thing they are paltry subsitutes.

*preface a word with “define:” and Google will offer a definition

Today I find to my surprise that my local public library card should enable me to access the OED from home. Wonders never cease! Alas, it doesn’t work and I’m sure it won’t work from overseas. A riposte to Mr.Edgar Allan Poe who opined that the King’s English wasn’t his any more? We’ll see about then shall we?

Here we have an asset of incalculable value that is unavailable to most people and which doesn’t need uncountable sums of money to be made freely available to the entire world. OED adwords anybody?

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