The magna cum laude of dictionaries
Alas, because language is in a constant state of flux, a lexicographer’s work is never done. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), replete with 414,825 words was completed in 1928 and ceremonial presentations were made to President Calvin Coolidge and His Majesty King George V. Supplements ensued but not until 1989 did a second edition comprised of twenty volumes appear. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, this edition has “21,728 pages and contains some 290,500 main entries, within which there are a further 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type (all defined) and a further 169,000 phrases and undefined combinations in bold italic type, totaling 615,500 word forms.”
The pace of change is ever-quickening. In March 2000, the 20 volume OED, plus three volumes of additions, became available online and every word in the OED is being revised. So, 120 years after the first editor of the OED James Murray launched an “appeal for Words for the OED,“ John Simpson, the present chief editor, invited “readers to contribute to the development of the Dictionary by adding to our record of English throughout the world. Everyone can play a part in recording the history of the language and in helping to enhance the OED.” I believe this project represents one of the greatest feats of scholarship ever undertaken and accomplishes for lexicography what the Human Genome Project is doing for biology.
Words, and new senses of existing words, are flooding into the language from all corners of the world. Only a dictionary the size of the OED can adequately capture the true richness of the English language throughout its history, and the developments in
English. By the time the revisions are completed sometime between 2025 and 2030, the English vocabulary will most likely have at least doubled. As a result, there may not even be a print edition as it would require close to fifty volumes to complete it. One reason so many words are being added is because of the lexicographic advancements in the non-British and non-Ameican Englishes, such as African and Asian varieties, whose words are increasingly being recorded in the OED. There is no longer only one English language; rather English is now available in a variety of flavours.
Interestingly, the revision in 2000 began not with the letter “A” but with the letter “M.” I asked John Simpson why this was done and he replied that “the OED editors wanted to start the revision at a point halfway through the dictionary where the style was largely consistent, and to return to the earlier, less consistent areas later.” In any case, by 2010 all words from M to R had been revised and since then this alphabetical format has been abandoned and every three months we now find revised entries across the alphabet. For example, in December 2014 un-PC was added; June 2014 introduced branzino, a term for the European bass or seabass and also the verb Skype; in March 2014, bestie achieved OED validation.
Aside from cataloguing virtually every English word of the last 1000 years, the OED, in its online incarnation, offers a host of useful features for the lexicographically-minded:
In graphic form, timelines are provided that highlight the year wotrds are first recorded in the OED. Hence, the year I was born also featured the arrival of the words cappuccino, cybernetics and transistor whereas 1616, the year Shakespeare expired saw the birth of acquiescent, incidental and Kurd.
Top 1000 Sources
If you guess Shakespeare as the most frequent quoted OED source, you're not far wrong. The Bard, however comes in second and is bested by the London Times (39,884 quotaions versus 33,127). Rounding out the top five are #3, Walter Scott, #4, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and #5, Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The top North American source is the New York Times at #11 and the Globe and Mail takes Canadian honours at #212. I don't think too many people would guess the Canadian runner-up - The Daily Colonist of Victoria, B.C. at #431.
The historical thesaurus is a taxonomic classification of the majority of senses in the OED. It can be thought of as a kind of semantic index to the contents of the dictionary. It can be used to navigate around the dictionary by topic, find related terms, and explore the lexical history of a concept or meaning. It is divided in three categories, the External World, the Mind and Society. So for example, if you were researching Clairvoyance, you would click on External World and then to the Supernatural heading, then to Paranormal and finally Clairvoyance where you would find several entries such as “second sight” defined as a supposed power by which occurences in the future or things at a distance are perceived as though they were actually present.”
The feature that I find most useful in the OED is the categories section and in my next two Lexpert articles I will explore some of its dimensions.
Richler's next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.