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On the Oxford English Dictionary

01:00 Thu 26th Sep 2002 |
John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, calls his life's work "the principal dictionary of record for the English language throughout the lifetime of all current users of the language". Quite right too. Since the First Edition appeared in 1928 as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles the OED, and its companion the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, have set standards for wordsmiths, philologists and lexicographers the world over.

What's the latest

The SOED has just published its Fifth Edition, a revision of the 1993 New Shorter OED. Some 3,500 new words, updated quotations, and a new layout. 'Shorter' in this case being a relative term, by the way: it's still two volumes thick.

What else does the OED do

Of particular interest to us here in cyberspace - don't forget the Oxford English Dictionary Online, first published in 2000, wherein readers can mount concerted attacks on the etymology of words via a hugely sophisticated search engine. (For example, which words of North American origin entering the English language in the 20th century rhyme with grass )

What else makes the Online version exciting

How about the ability to contribute to the ongoing revision of the Dictionary, including the hunt for new words, meaning and usage The editors actively solicit help from the general public: full details on the website.

And, as you might imagine, the online version is geared rather more readily to regular updates than the books: every three months as opposed to every 60 years! The OED Online is a subscription service, and a little out of the price range of the casual surfer, but for the dedicated word sleuth - it's indispensable.

What else has the Internet changed about the OED

Not surprisingly, new media and the technology surrounding it have contributed scores of new words to the Dictionary. However, the editors are keen to track down words and usage from all over the place - fashion, food, commerce, science, slang and entertainment are all sources of new words in the latest SOED.

What are some of the latest words to be included

  • Aga saga: the dramas and passions of middle-class, Middle England
  • New Labour: (see above!)
  • Blairism: the political philosophy of Prime Minister Tony B
  • Jedi: from Star Wars, a member of the mystical knightly order
  • Tardis: Doctor Who's time machine, being larger on the inside than on the outside
  • Grrrl: a young woman who is perceived as independent and strong or aggressive
  • Ladette: a young woman who exhibits activities more normally associated with the male of the species
  • Early doors: hats off to Ron Atkinson for this footballing term, meaning early in the game
  • Comb-over: hats on for Bobby Charlton, who championed this hair 'style' as a younger man

Blair: thrilled to make the OED
There are many more, from bunny-boiler to chick flick, wedgie to wuss, the full monty and Essex Man. They may all make sense to the modern reader, but they would have meant nothing just a few years ago - and they would have provoked disbelief if presented to the men who first agreed that English needed a new dictionary...

A lengthy undertaking

Having been proposed by the Philological Society of London as long ago as 1857, and first worked on in earnest in 1879 (these Victorians had lots of other things to do, it seems, like grow their beards, build an Empire and invent football), the Dictionary emerged in instalments between 1884-1928. Originally conceived as a four-volume work of 6,400 pages, by the time it was published it was already on its fourth editor, weighing in at ten volumes and a staggering 15,490 pages - and sixty years overdue! (Lucky it wasn't a library book...)

A work in progress

Work on the OED has never stopped. There have been updates, revisions and fresh instalments ever since. The Second Edition (1989) had grown to 20 volumes, 21,730 pages, 291,500 entries and no fewer than 59 million words of text.

Any more facts and figures

The longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary covers the verb ‘set’: it takes approximately 60,000 words and over 430 senses to define this three letter word.

The most frequently quoted work is the Bible, while Shakespeare is quoted some 33,300 times. (Prove that the works of Shakespeare are riddled with cliches!)

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