From Materiality No. 1: Birth of a dictionary—An interview with Douglas C Blood

The oldest known dictionaries are cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian Empire, dating roughly to 2300 BC. Since those first marks pressed into clay, dictionaries and other reference books have proliferated. A dictionary, thesaurus and a set of encyclopedias might once have taken pride of place in a home and were popular resources in public libraries. Now, the reference sections of libraries are largely deserted, with web and app-based dictionaries and encyclopedias increasingly convenient and popular. Why give all that shelf space over to books, when you can have the world in your pocket? Dictionaries and encyclopedias might be among the first types of books to become available only in digital form.

In 1988 Ballière Tindall published Ballière’s Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary by D C Blood & Virginia P Studdert. It went on to become a standard text for veterinary students in Australia and overseas. New editions were published in 1999, 2007 and 2012. It has sold over 160,000 copies and has been translated into Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese. The most recent edition is titled Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary and is published by Elsevier. It includes over 60,000 entries as well as full-colour illustrations and extensive appendices. It also weighs three kilograms. It wasn’t always quite so large—one of the original authors, Douglas Blood, talks here about how the original dictionary was conceived.

What prompted you to write a dictionary?

This was funny. In the early 1980s a publisher of veterinary and medical textbooks wrote to ten of us, ten senior veterinary educators. I knew a couple of the others. They said the question has been raised about a veterinary dictionary, would a more comprehensive dictionary be viable as a project? There was already a publication called Black’s Veterinary Dictionary, but it was more of an encyclopaedia than a dictionary and there was scope to increase the subject matter. And everybody else said no, nobody would buy it. I said, it won’t be financially viable because I don’t think anyone will buy it. But it’s sadly needed and if you do decide to do it, I’ll do it. Which meant some self-sacrifice because your income in those situations is from the royalties. And so back came a letter, “righto, you’re on!”

How did you go about writing a dictionary from scratch?

The publisher had some other publications in its armoury that it owned the copyright for, so they could do anything with them. So they said here’s a dictionary of nursing—Miller and Keane’s Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health—you can use any of the definitions in here. There were terms like “haemoglobin” and many others that were common to all of the disciplines, so I copied them. But there was work involved because you had to make sure there were no allusions to human medicine in it. I think I got about 25,000 definitions out of that dictionary of nursing.  There was a total of 50,000 definitions in the first edition, so the other 25,000 were ones that I wrote myself. I identified words in contemporary veterinary use by looking at the indices of existing veterinary textbooks, over a wide range of disciplines. I was the large animal expert and, when we came to a small animal word, I passed it to Virginia and that was pretty much how we did it.

We also had, I think, eight special collaborators. We’d send the prepared text that related to their specialty and they would edit it, or at least validate what I had written. There were some really burgeoning disciplines at the time, like cell biology, cell genetics and so on, and there we were very lucky because Virginia’s husband was the professor of virology and this was his particular field of interest. So we were well off there. But there were new disciplines—for example, DNA had only just come on to the horizon.

We had time limits to write the dictionary. We had to finish by a certain date. So I had a big sheet of fibreboard and I drew a graph of how many definitions I had to write each day until that date.

What equipment did you use?

I spoke to Virginia and we really can’t remember much about how we put the first edition together, in a practical sense. I remember I had an Apricot computer1 at home. For the second edition we used a dictionary program called Compulexus,2 which had already been used for producing other dictionaries—perhaps even the OED?

What did Compulexus do? 

What did it do? It was a way of organizing the notes, terms and definitions. The difficult thing really was words that were related or similar, where did you put the definition? In other words—bad example —oedema and dropsy are the same thing, but where would you put the full definition, under oedema or dropsy? Any of the others you had to cross-reference, because you only wanted the definition in one place. So it helped to organize that kind of thing.

But there was a decided problem with the computer because it didn’t tell you when it was full. So on quite a number of occasions I would keep on writing, writing and writing and find that I’d gone right off that end of the disk! So I lost a couple of hours of writing, or even a couple of days! I had to do it all again and it was so annoying. And each time I’d say “right, that’s it, I’ve had it”, and Virginia would say, give it one more chance. Because of the amount of data we had and the limitations of the computer—I think it had a storage capacity of maybe 20 MB—the publishers cut the database in two, so we had to keep switching between the two halves to navigate around the alphabetical list of entries.

What were ideas for the design of the dictionary?

The big thing, I decided this, was that it had to be a dictionary for students; something they could carry to classes every day in their backpacks. So it had to be economical in pages, space, the size of the font and so on and I was really pleased it worked out like that. There weren’t any illustrations and margins and headings were kept to a minimum. It was very very economical, so it was cheap! And it sold—everybody had expected it to be a poor seller, but I did it as a student book, because I knew if we guaranteed every term they were going to meet in their career was in the dictionary, they’d want it. There might be a subject they didn’t encounter until fifth year, but the definitions they needed for it were still in there. And of course there was always the lecturer who used descriptions of diseases they hadn’t heard about, but now they could look them up, right there in class. It was very very popular amongst students. That’s what carried it along. As we got from edition to edition it became a bit more sophisticated, and not just the definitions. The third edition and the most recent both have coloured pictures, which means you get into different paper, and it weighs more and costs more to print.

I believe the latest edition put your back out?

Yes! It’s a heavy thing, not so portable anymore. The latest Australian edition comes with a code inside the front cover, so you can log into an online edition. Maybe the next edition will be designed so it can be used on a tablet or iPad—then it would be portable again.

  1. The Apricot PC was Apricot Computers’ first computer for business use, released in 1983. It used an Intel 8086 processor running at 4.77 MHz, with 256 KB memory. Equipped with two floppy disks and a keyboard, it ran MS-DOS but was not IPM PC compatible. It was one of the first PCs outside of Japan to use the 3.5” disk drives. In March 1984 two hard disk machines with built-in disk drives of 5 or 10 MB capacity were introduced. Apricot Computers was a British company that started in 1965 as a “computer bureau”, a company that rented computer time to other companies without computers of their own. It closed in 1999. Read more at old-computers.com and actapricot.org (both viewed 18 July 2012).
  2. Compulexis was a lexicographical data system, one of the first commercially available dictionary editing systems. Compulexis Ltd (based in Oxford) was incorporated in November of 1985 and was dissolved in November 2002, unable to find a sustainable commercial market. See cdrex.com (viewed 18 July 2012) and the Manual of Specialised Lexicography: The preparation of specialized dictionaries, edited by Henning Bergenholtz and Sven Tarp, 1995, John Benjamins Publishing Co, Amsterdam.

D C Blood is a retired veterinary professor. A large animal vet, he was appointed as Professor of Veterinary Medicine and Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne in 1962. In 1960 he co-wrote a text book of veterinary medicine with J A Henderson, which has since been through several editions. He retired from university teaching in 1985. D C Blood spoke to Alice Cannon in July 2012. Thanks also to Virginia Studdert for her recollections.

Postscript: Douglas C Blood passed away peacefully at Western Hospital, Footscray on the 6th of June. Cherished partner of Shirley, beloved husband of Marian (dec.), much loved father of Christine, Sue, Judy, Linda and Kate, wonderful grandfather of Alice, Zoe, Sally, Emily, Bronwen and Amelia and great grandfather of Zane and Thea, esteemed and loved father-in- law of Rob, Ross, David and Rob. A gentle man of great intellect, compassion and good will who touched many lives. We will miss him so much.

The Ex Praemio inside a book awarded to Douglas C Blood.

The Ex Praemio inside a book awarded to Douglas C Blood.