How the OED became ubiquitous in Indian homes

The Asian Age.  | Sridhar Balan

English dictionaries can broadly be divided into two broad categories — the vocabulary dictionaries and the dictionaries of English usage.

Rightfully, English is not only an international language now but people of other countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere have adopted it as their official language.

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English has been a language of aspiration in India ever since Macaulay, as education member of the Viceroy’s Council, introduced it as the medium of instruction in all educational institutions in India in 1935. Since then, parents have made it their objective to get their children admitted to those schools that have a proven track record in teaching the subject.

A good school education laid a sound foundation for good English as well, and many aspirants for jobs found that they had to fill in as much details about their school education as their later qualifications. This prowess at good English even affected those in support services in the professional, technical or hospitality industries.

The British Council offices in India, one of whose objectives is the promotion of English and it runs courses in English, also began programmes and workshops called ‘English at Work. It realised that apart from the courses on Business English which was useful for businessmen, there was a real need and demand for English from the classes manning the support services as well.

In this process, a demand was built up for a resource that that would help people learn the language well. This was the English Dictionary. Once the dictionary was introduced in the educational workplace (school or college) and at home, it became an indispensable reference. People soon discovered it developed their vocabulary and word power, helped them with correct spellings and pronunciation, helped them understand expressions and above all, correct usage of a word or a term. It’s rare now to find a household, at least in urban India, that does not have a dictionary of some kind.

The presence of the dictionary in the house also helped members develop their English skills and vocabulary even if not blessed with a formal, higher education. I can testify to my own mother-in-law’s skill at playing Scrabble or the word power game and holding her own at her home in Bengaluru, and very often getting the better of her opponents who had a higher education degree.

It’s ironical to think of the dictionary as so much a part of our lives today, a lexicographical resource that was simply not available to Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, John Donne and other great writing minds of the day!

English dictionaries can broadly be divided into two broad categories — the vocabulary dictionaries and the dictionaries of English usage. Both sets of dictionaries give word meaning, spelling and in a sense, correct usage. But the latter set of dictionaries carry usage further. The latest editions of these dictionaries, have in addition to the meaning, a word link, a word partnership, a thesaurus meaning and even a word web link from the net. In many cases, these dictionaries are illustrated and are called ELT dictionaries or dictionaries for English Language Teaching. Since, they expand so much on a word giving its different meanings and variety of usages, the ELT dictionaries, have as a consequence reduced their headwords or the number of word meanings they have used in the dictionary.

This is where the vocabulary dictionaries score over them as they have more number of headwords.

This is indeed useful for if one looks at the origin and development of English, one is struck by the way English assimilates and incorporates words from other languages. This is due to the nature of English history. As Simon Winchester has noted in his book The Meaning of Everything, “there was a profound and seminal influence on the English language by a host of invaders — Celts, Romans, Teutons of Germanic stock, Vikings and the Normans. These not only left an inedible imprint on the development of modern English, but also profoundly influenced the way Welsh, Cornish, Scots, Gaelic and Irish are spoken today’. If I may add to this, this early preparation of English as a ‘receiver language’ helped the language assimilate more words from other languages as England set out on its imperial and colonising experience. Thus today, we no longer have a pure Queen’s English but have an African English, a Caribbean English, an Indian English etc. The latter is so significant that the Queen herself was forced to acknowledge the large number of words of Indian origin in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) while receiving the Indian head of state in 1989.

Rightfully, English is not only an international language now but people of other countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere have adopted it as their official language. It’s also recognized as an official language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

All this has had an impact on the growth and development of English dictionaries in India, for a dictionary is a record of a living language and needs to be current if it wants to be continued in use. The increased number of Indian words now in any standard English dictionary led to the Oxford University Press (OUP) incorporating a special supplement of Indian words in English to an Indian edition of its internationally famous Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) which had recently abbreviated its name from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (OALDCE). Not to be outdone, its lead competitor, HarperCollins, also added supplements to its Collins COBUILD Advanced Illustrated Dictionary, one of words and phrases from Classic Literature and another of words and phrases from Shakespeare.  COBUILD was an acronym for Collins Birmingham University International Language Database. It collaborated with Birmingham University in the development of the dictionary and its words were derived from the Bank of English corpus. The OALD, on the other hand, collaborated with Oxford University and depended on the British National Corpus for its word-base.

The OALD has been a lead seller in ELT dictionaries in India, in part, because it has been given a special license to reprint the OALD in India at competitive prices and in part, able to sell the dictionary at a special price in neighbouring countries like Nepal etc. Yet, not many people are aware of a development that threatened that market dominance of the OALD in India some years ago and may have led to something worse, if not quickly defused.

The OALD is sold in India under the condition that its sale is confined to the Indian sub-continent and adjoining territories and not elsewhere. In 1988, a distributor’s representative happened to carry an Indian edition of the OALD while on a sales tour of Russia. He happened to show the OALD to the head of the state controlled buying agency. The agent liked it and its special price and placed a large than usual order. Seeing the size of the order, the exporter did not or could tell him of the restricted rights and came back to India with the order hoping his boss, Sukumar Das, would solve the problem. Sukumar was now in a dilemma as no one in sales ever likes to give up an order. He met Santosh Mookerjee, the then head of OUP in India. As people from the eastern region of the country, they shared a common passion for “cha” (tea), “biskoot” (biscuits) and football. The size of the order (50,000) copies convinced Santosh, against his better judgement, to write to Oxford for special permission to reprint. This was granted as a “one time” permission only. As there was a short time limit for the order, stocks were hurriedly printed and bound in Kolkata, transported to Mumbai and sent by container on cargo ship to the port of Odessa. Sukumar, happy he was able to deliver on the order and armed with an advance remittance, awaited news of safe delivery. He received a telegram from Odessa which stated “Ship Docked”. Stop. “Cargo Delivered”. Stop. “Consignment Opened”. Stop. “Two Workers Fainted. Stop. “Come At Once”. Stop. Now, both Sukumar and Santosh were in a panic. Finally, a senior sales veteran was sent from the distributor’s office to Odessa by air. On reaching the docks, he found the Russians rather tense as the affected workers were women. Speaking reassuringly and confidently, he asked for the books to be taken out of their packing, spread out on the floor and aired. The books were ready for use a couple of days later.

It transpired that because of the urgency in printing and binding, the binding glue, in those days made of strong-smelling and dubious ingredients had not had time to dry properly. On opening the cargo, their overpowering stench was too much for delicate olfactory nerves of the women workers who had fainted. The sales person had probably faced similar situations and possibly more sensitized, was able to retrieve the situation. All ended well and Santosh wrote a milder version of the incident to Oxford. They too were happy with the royalty they received on the sale.                                                                                                                               

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

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