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As its title makes explicit, this is an abridgement of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2d ed., published in 1989. Within the covers of 20 large volumes, the editors of the OEDundertook the task of listing and defining " . . . the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology."
One major difference between the OEDand the Shorter Oxford English Dictioary(SOED) is that the latter has jettisoned most archaic and obsolete words, exceptions being holdovers from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other linguistic relics that are still a part of our living language. Another is that while the OEDprovides profuse examples of a particular word's employment by literary lions and silver-tongued orators, the SOEDparcels out quotations sparingly; these passages are highlighted with gray shading. (According to Oxford, 500 quotations have been added by authors writing in the last ten years.)
A comparison between the sixth and fifth editions of the SOEDfurther reveals the addition of about 2500 new entries; understandably, most relate to scientific and technological concepts. Spelling has been updated to reflect current trends, while usage notes have been expanded in response to our newfound sensitivity to expressions related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Especially useful are explanatory guides to using and navigating the dictionary (e.g., abbreviations, pronunciation) and the inclusion of a CD, which contains the entirety of the SOED.
There are problems worth noting, however.Most important: the definitions are less than definitive. "Sherry," for example, is described as "a fortified white wine orig. from S. Spain, drunk esp. as an appetizer." In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, the term is defined as "a fortified wine of Spanish origin ranging from pale to dark amber in color and from very dry to sweet in taste with typically a distinctive nutty flavor." This example represents a pattern found throughout, which is a kind of bare-bones approach to lexicography that leaves the reader with only a rudimentary understanding of a word's meaning. It also doesn't help that there are no illustrations, maps, color plates, charts, or tables; it is merely a black-and white desert of the alphabet.
Further, an emphasis is placed on British English, which as time goes on, is more and more distant from its American cousin. Therefore, no heading exists for "flashlight," as in "a small battery-operated portable electric light" (Webster's Third), since such a device is called an "electric torch" across the pond. While "gasoline" is included, it's described as being "used for heating and lighting," by which the editors probably mean "kerosene." The American sense of "gasoline," that is, fuel for an automobile, is not listed, since this is what the Brits refer to as "petrol" (short for petroleum), which we Yanks would call oil.
—Michael F. Bemis