restricted access Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED by John Willinsky (review)
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108Rocky Mountain Review invites strong responses—and thus re-engagement with primary texts— from its readers. SUSAN H. SWETNAM Idaho State University JOHN WILLINSKY. Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. 258 p. John Willinsky is not the first to recommend we use a much more critical eye when consulting the OED than we are accustomed to doing. But in Empire of Words: The Reign ofthe OED, he suggests we can only do so if we understand how the dictionary "comes authoritatively to construct a particular reality of language" (204). Willinsky sets out to provide his readers with such an understanding, and after getting off to a rather repetitive start he does just that. Placing himself in the post-modernist tradition, he examines the history of the dictionary, particularly the socio-political environment out of which the OED arose, the reading program and other policies of its original and subsequent editors, and internal evidence to reveal how the dictionary both uses and creates authority. The purpose of the OED was to serve as a record of the history of the English language. But the dictionary proves to be much more than that. Willinsky concurs with Roy Harris' observation that it also acts, to this day, as a repository of Victorian England's values and philosophy ("The History Men," Rev. of A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, Times Literary Supplement 3 Sep. 1982: 935-36). He notes, however, that it has also begun to reflect its more recent post-colonial environment. The OED was proposed and brought to life during the latter half of the ninteenth century, a time when England was in its final expansion of empire abroad, and when the development of a democratic state and a transference of faith from religion to science were taking place at home. Within this cultural and political context, the Philological Society conceived of the work that was to become the OED as a historical and scientific document of the language. The dictionary offered a single record wherein all who accessed it could witness the glories of the English culture reflected in its language . This is significant in a time when the final drive to impose on others what the English perceived as their superior culture was in progress. The OED offered the English confirmation of their own language's magnificence. It could also serve others "as a beacon to the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic state of the English people as they were intently given to civilizing the globe" (200). The OED was democratic in that it was to record the language of the English people; not surprisingly, however, it privileged that of the educated. As Harris has noted, its editors relied primarily on the authority of literary texts for the citations they selected to illustrate word definitions. It is this Book Reviews109 relationship between citation and authority, or more specifically, how authority is created by the use of citations, that Willinsky explores through internal evidence. Willinsky illustrates that the editors' choice of authors and works for citations promotes an image of the English language as developing along a continuum, from the Bible and the classics to venerated English authors, and that this authority is circular. "[T]he authority taken from these works by the dictionary is paid back to them" through the process of citation, he maintains, since it "both establishes the canon and puts it to work in the service of a national culture and character" (197). Working from the commonly held premise that citations reflect specific word use but not general definition, Willinsky then devotes two chapters to exploring a few of the many entries which quote Shakespeare for the purpose of elucidating a word's meaning. His concern is with the broader issue of how quoting an example out of context and transferring it from one genre to another confuses the definition it is intended to clarify. The results can be misleading because the "citation drags the weight of a work into a new genre, representing a complex and diffuse intertextuality that can level the differences between sacred and profane, literary and prosaic, acts of writing" (198). In the final chapters, Willinsky...


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