Century-Old Dictionary Error Shows That 'Professionally' Edited Reference Books Make Errors Too
from the don't-freak-out dept
A couple months ago I finally got around to reading The Professor and the Madman, a book I’d actually picked up a couple years ago just because it looked interesting. It’s about the creation of the very first Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and some of the characters (and I do mean characters) involved. Frankly, while the story is interesting, the book feels very padded. It’s the sort of story that would have been much better as a long magazine feature rather than an entire book.
However, one thing that struck me was how the OED was basically its own version of Wikipedia at the time. After all, how do you go about cataloging every single English word ever used? Especially when there are really no other English dictionaries to speak of (at least not any that aim to be complete)? Well, you build up a massive roster of volunteers to do all the work for you. That’s exactly what OED apparently did. They put out ads and flyers and built up a huge volunteer army to scour books, write down words, and highlight the definition and first usage of those words, which the OED team then assembled. The process took decades, but would have taken longer (if it would have been done at all) had it not been for the army of volunteers participating. Reading the chapters of the book about this part of the process made it sound very, very similar to Wikipedia in many ways. Of course, there was one major difference: at the end of the day, you still supposedly had the “professional” editors deciding what finally went into the book.
I’d been considering writing up a post about that similarities, but wasn’t quite sure about how to fit it in, when johnjac alerted us to the story about how a physicist just discovered a 99-year old error in the OED, on the definition of the word “siphon.” Apparently, the definition states that it’s atmospheric pressure, rather than gravity that makes the siphon work, which is incorrect. Yet, because the OED is considered such an authority, many of the top dictionaries all make the same claim — and some “professional” encyclopedias do as well (though, not Britannica, if you were wondering). The OED promises to correct the error, though, of course, that won’t be until the next edition.
To some extent, this highlights the same point many people have made about Wikipedia for ages: both the “professionally edited” reference books and the open edited reference sources have errors. But how quickly can they be corrected? If Wikipedia had the same error, it could be corrected immediately. With OED, it appears that people needed to wait a while.