Ideally, a dictionary captures the evolution of usage: regionalisms and slang, words pulled from other languages, neologisms born of necessity or flung from the wheels of rapid change. It also serves as a humble resource for looking up spellings and new terms. And how else are we to settle disputes during Scrabble games?
For wordsmiths, a dictionary is indispensable. As a copy editor for more years than I care to count, I thumb through the Canadian Oxford Dictionary daily. Indeed, I’ve worn out three hardcover copies since its release over twenty years ago. But the COD isn’t just my go-to resource. Anyone in this country who works in magazines, books, newspapers, or academia most likely has it on their desk. (Gage and Collins, if present, collect dust.) However, many professionals, myself included, lament the absence of an up-to-date COD, and we fantasize about an app that would put it at our fingertips.
As the story goes, Noah Webster, a teacher, editor, and author, published his 70,000-word An American Dictionary of the English Language as a linguistic act of patriotism, in 1828. The distant cousin of Webster’s original work — the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary — holds a definitive place in publishing and academia worldwide. (Peter Martin’s recent The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language reveals a more contentious origin story than we often think.)
In Toronto, some 800 kilometres from Webster’s Connecticut home, Oxford University Press issued a northern equivalent in 1998: the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, with 2,000 distinctly Canadian terms, 500 regionalisms, 1,200 place names, 800 national biographies, and 300 cultural mentions among its 130,000 entries. It debuted to great acclaim, spending a year on the Globe and Mail ’s bestseller list and taking home the Libris Award for non-fiction book of the year. It even received a nod in Time, which called it “a unique reference book for all Canadians.”
“It sold some 100,000 copies in the first year,” recalls founding editor-in-chief Katherine Barber. “That’s outstanding for a Canadian title — especially one that cost $40.”
The COD landed in fertile ground: a literate nation with a colourful, long-standing cultural identity but no dictionary to embody it. Canadianisms enlivened the new book: “bunkie,” “cod tongues,” “depanneur,” “double-double,” “Interac,” “inukshuk,” “May Two‑Four,” and “seat sale,” among hundreds of others. As Barber observes, “These words existed before the dictionary, and they don’t need a dictionary to continue existing. All they need is for Canadians to keep using them.” But Canadian usage continues to evolve, which is exactly why we need a dictionary that changes with it.
Once upon a time, editors across the country relied on Merriam-Webster, with adaptations for Canadian spellings, pronunciations, and accented characters. But when the COD arrived, it was quickly adopted by the publishing industry, including the Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail. The second edition, from 2004, delivered even more. It defined 300,000 “words and senses” from a Canadian perspective. Finally, the country had an authoritative reference it could call its own — much more than a pastiche of American and British English.
But Oxford suddenly closed its Canadian dictionary division in 2008. The press assured readers it would continue publishing the COD with updates by freelance lexicographers, but the project went dark.
Others tried to take up the mantle. In 2012, for example, a third-party developer, Handmark, issued a mobile Canadian Oxford app. A year later, the app was no longer supported. Oxford did offer the online COD bundled into an annual subscription with its “international dictionaries” (that is, languages other than English). It cost $169 a year and was overkill for readers who just wanted the Canadian version. Today, it exists as an awkward interface of almost 4,000 web pages with a clunky search field, available only to universities and other institutional subscribers.
Editors like me rely on the most up-to-date dictionary, and we care about nuances: “Internet” and “Dumpster,” both headed for lower case; “socio-economic” and “anti-Semitic,” poised to ditch their hyphens. We must also reflect language around today’s most pressing issues. See “LGBTQ+,” “cisgender,” “intersex” (listed in the COD as “an abnormal condition”), the contentious singular “they,” “climate change” versus “global warming,” and words from various First Nations (a term unique to Canada).
Since the second edition of the COD, the OED and Merriam-Webster online have added hundreds, if not thousands, of words every year, from “alt-right” and “auto-correct,” “binge-watch” and “bitcoin,” to “truthiness,” “upcycle,” and “vape.” Editors uphold distinctions between Canadian and other Englishes, and we refer to many sources for the latest usage. Yet we’re falling behind. We can’t expect them to articulate how Canadians treat new terms — because they’re not us. Amid the noise of social media, Wikipedia, and Urban Dictionary, the COD has an opportunity to once again assert its socio-political currency by articulating Canadian identity and values.
When I spoke to Oxford University Press recently, it confirmed that the second edition is still in print. But many believe it has gone extinct. Indeed, it seems Oxford may be getting out of physical dictionaries altogether. That said, Oxford Reference online readily lists forty-three apps in dozens of languages, including German, Italian, Greek, Russian, Chinese, and Urdu. Lexicographers update its global database of English, yet by not distinguishing Canadians, it has relegated us to a backwater. It folds new entries into the larger picture, annotated with a whisper as “Cdn.”
In this globalized world, it’s vital that we see our language and culture reflected. Canadian editors will hold fast to their copies of the COD. We can only hope that Oxford decides to revive it online and elevate it to the status of other digital reference works. In the meantime, I’ll continue thumbing through my well-worn hardcover copy.