The Oxford English Dictionary
The OED is one of the most amazing works of reference ever produced (if not actually the most amazing). Almost all words in the English language (and many from other languages, like French, German, Hindi et cetera) that were used in English public writing throughout the last, oh, 800 or 900 years or so, are recorded, explained, shown in context. Normally the very first usage (if at all known) is given as well: this means that for lots of words we can actually see who was their creator or inventor and in which work they made their public debut. All this is complemented by a list of quotes and further examples: this makes it possible to follow the general usage and changes in the meaning of a word through the centuries.
And almost any entry, chosen at random, will contain something enlightening, funny, surprising… the OED really is that kind of book: you have to see it, to use it, in order to believe that people (for the first edition hundreds, now thousands) actually put so much work — and over decades and decades — into making something that is ultimately just a book about words, a humble dictionary. Well, the fact is that the OED is more: it's nothing short of amazing. I wish the German language had something comparable.
The edition I have is a single volume edition and if you now scream that this can't possibly be the original OED, because that comes in 20 volumes, plus supplements, wait and see. British houses are so small that most people can't afford to have the OED in all its glory on their shelves (because then they would have very little else on the shelves). So the geniuses in Oxford produced a marvel within a marvel: they photo-reproduced the whole work, all 20 volumes (plus four supplements plus another 5000 or so words), page for page, re-sized the pages so that nine (!) original pages fit on one normal page (in a 3 x 3 pattern: think micro-fiche) and then printed off the whole thing. The result is called the “OED Compact Edition”: it has 2416 pages (which means in effect around original 21,600 pages), weighs in at almost a stone and is a very definitive brick.
If you're curious as to how the whole thing looks in reality: here is a photo that shows a small part of a shrunken page-within-the-page, so to speak, together with a match so you can estimate the relative sizes.
The advantage of this edition is that I can now have all of the OED in one (admittedly slightly oversized) volume: the definitions of 500,000 words, 290,000 main entries, 137,000 pronunciations, 249,300 (!) etymologies, 577,000 cross-references, and almost 2,500,000 quotations. A slight disadvantage is that to read all that wonderful stuff I need a magnifying glass (yes, really: the book even comes with its own set). But that is a relatively small price to pay, I think. So taken altogether, this one is a clear LICHTENBERG.
$updated from: The Oxford English Dictionary.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$