How did I not know about the Oxford English Dictionary? This is probably what comes from living largely in my own head and not doing a lot of interacting with the outside world. Fortunately I’m exposed to the internet and online writers’ forums where people post messages with references to such things as the O.E.D.
According to Wikipedia: ‘As of 2005, the OED contained about 301,100 main entries. Supplementing each entry headword, there are 157,000 bold-type combinations and derivatives; 169,000 italicized-bold phrases and combinations; 616,500 word-forms in total, including 137,000 pronunciations; 249,300 etymologies; 577,000 cross-references; and 2,412,400 usage quotations. The dictionary’s latest complete print edition (Second Edition, 1989), was printed in 20 volumes, comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages.’
According to the 1933 Preface, the aim of the OED was ‘to present alphabetically the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records (ca. AD 740) to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology.’
They do exclude all words that had become obsolete by 1150.
The dictionary was originally a Philological Society project conceived in London by three gentlemen who were dissatisfied with the current English dictionaries. In 1857 they formed an ‘Unregistered Words Committee’ to search for unlisted and undefined words lacking in current dictionaries. Wikipedia goes into considerable detail about the evolution of that project into the OED of today.
Today the dictionary is available in 20 volumes for close to $1000 (a ‘fine’ edition is available for $6,295); can be viewed online for approximately $300 a year; and is also available on CD for a little over $200. I read several reports complaining that the CD version is difficult to use and requires very frequent validations. A planned Third Edition has an estimated completion date of 2037. There is speculation that it may only be offered on CD.
There is also available — and this may be of interest to those of you who, like me, have neither shelf space for 20 volumes nor a spare $1000 — a two volume ‘Compact Edition’ that was created by photographically reducing each page to one-half its linear dimensions. Each compact edition page holds four OED pages. The set comes in a case with a drawer for a magnifying glass, which is included. It was originally published in 1971. In 1991, the compact edition format was re-sized to one-third of the original linear dimensions. Even with a magnifying glass, that has to be almost impossible to read.
Having gathered all that information, I promptly went to eBay — where else? — and found several of the compact edition offered and promptly bought one for $100. Some were going for less.
According to the OED:
‘Hell-cat’ is an early term for a hackney coach.
‘To turn the cat in the pan’ is to reverse the order of things so dexterously as to make them appear the opposite of what they really are. Origin unknown, the phrase goes back to the 1500’s.
‘Cat’s purr’ is a thrill felt over the region of the heart in certain heart diseases.
I’m in bliss.