Monday, October 5, 2015

Persian contributions to English

                  Persian delights the English language




                                   Howard Richler

It appears that a reconciliation has occurred between the USA and Iran; banners in Tehran excoriating the Great Satan might soon be replaced by ones hailing the great rapprochment. So perhaps the time is ripe to take stock of the western world's debt to the Persian language. Until a century ago Persian was the cultural lingua franca in many parts of Asia. Persian was the first language in Muslim civilization to break through Arabic's monopoly on writing, and the writing of poetry in Persian, particularly the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was established as a tradition in many eastern royal courts.

Whereas, one can argue that before the  20th century the French language was largely responsible for food terms in English, Persian has been equally providential with many words it bequeathed us for clothing and fabric. For example, the word “scarlet” – from the Persian saqalat    arrived in the 13th century originally referring to any rich cloth, often of a red colour and it would take two centuries before its primary sense was its hue. “Taffeta” arrived English a century later and at first designated a plain-wove glossy silk of various shades but more recently the word designates a bright, lustrous silk. In the 16th and 17th centuries  many other Persian clothing-related words were added to English such as “shawl” from shal, “cummerbund” from kamar-band,  “khaki” that ultimately comes from the Persian word for dust, khak and “turban” that derives from dulband. Also coming from the Persian dulband is the flower tulip because of its supposed resemblance to a turban.

As we have already seen words change meanings and this is the case with “pyjamas.” It is first seen in English in the beginning of the 19th century. Originally it referred to loose trousers usualy of silk or cotton tied around the waist and worn  by both sexes in some Middle East and Asian countries. The word derives from the Persian pay-jama where pay means “foot” and jama means “garment.”

Aside from words changing meaning, we also  see a process where the sound of the words alter dramatically. This is what happened when the Persian saqalat  “rich cloth” was absorbed  into Old French as escarlate before becoming “scarlet” in English. We see a similar transformation with the word “seersucker”.  Although this word sounds like it describes a soothsayer who has been duped, I assure you that this material's origins are  far more wholesome. “Seer ” is a corruption of the Persian sheer “milk” and  “sucker” is a transformation of sharkar, “sugar.”  Hence sheer o shakkar, “milk and sugar” is essentially a metaphor for two things that go well together, although very different.  Originally, sugar was quite rough and coarse with a darkish colour and this contrasted with smooth,white milk. So seersucker is in fact a combination of different colours and different textures found in seersucker which normally has a light stripe and a dark one.

This is not to say that all Persian imports into English relate to clothing and its material.

Speaking of sugar's connection to seersucker, the legions of Alexander the Great were introduced to a Persian delicacy which was composed of a reed garnished with spices, honey and colouring. This Persian treat referring specifically to the crystallized juice of the sugar cane was qand from which we get the word candy. Anther Persian import is “paradise” which derives from a Persian word pairidaeza “enclosed place,” a word  that    blends  pairi “around” and diz, “form.”  In English, the prefix peri- means “about” or  “around” and the diz part is responsible for the words “dairy,” “dough” and the second syllable of “lady.” Greek absorbed the word  as paradeisos with the sense of an enclosed park and in the Greek version of the Bible the word was applied to the Garden of Eden with the sense of “abode of the blessed.” Also, before the year 1000, the OED cites several uses of the word paradise to refer to heaven.

Ultimately, the word chess also derives from Persian. The key move in chess, of course, is putting the king in check and the word chess derives from the plural of the Old French  eschec which was rendered as  esches. But Old French eschec originated from the Persian word for king, shah. When an ancient Persian chess player had his opponent's king trapped, he'd announce shah-mat, “the king is dead,” to which I add “long live loanwords.” As one can discern shah-mat sounds almost identical to “checkmate,” However, the name for the game in Persian is charang which denotes the four members of an army, namely, horses, elephants, foot-soldiers and chariots. On the other hand, the chess piece “rook” has arrived almost uncorrupted into English from the Persian ruk.

It would be fitting if the final agreement between US and Iranian negotiators had been effected while sitting around a divan. At first, a devan in Persian meant a small book, then an account book and eventually an accountant's office. Eventually, it came to refer to some of the official chambers and finally to the long seat found in many of these rooms.

Richler's book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published next spring.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Indian English

               India  deliciously spices up its English as well as its food


                                         Howard Richler

Guess which  country possesses the second-most speakers of English after the US? The apparent answer is the United Kingdom, but sometimes what seems apparent is erroneous.The correct answer is India where approximately 125 million people (10% of the population) speak English as either a first or a second language. English also serves an important function in India as the country possesses almost 1000 languages, but only Hindi and English are  likely to be understood throughout the country.

This past February I went on a three week tour of  India where judging by the English used by tour guide Amit, one wouldn't suppose that Indian English was at all distinctive. But given he was addressing two dozen North American tourists, he wouldn't use  normal vernacular. Had he done so, an example of the particular flavour of Indian English would be the following sentence I've concocted where the italicized terms represent Indian English: “The puskee goonda holding the tiffin carrier was eve-teasing the young woman notwithstanding that the police-wallah with a lahti was standing next to the grameen bank near the kaccha road.” Some translation is in order. A puskee goonda is a feeble-minded hooligan and a tiffin carrier designates a small lunchbox; eve-teasing is a euphemistic reference to sexual harassment of women; a police wallah is a police officer (wallah denotes a profession) and  lahti refers to a long stick two to five feet long which may be lead-weighted. A grameen bank refers to a village bank designed to aid the less affluent and a kaccha road is a dirt road.

British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge quipped more than thirty years ago that the last Englishman would be an Indian. Particularly in the past this held true  and I recall when I was researching Indian English for my book Global Mother English fourteen years ago I came upon some Internet usages that described some of the words and expressions that have become archaic in England. For example, one site stated “now we can all enjoy a few glasses of jolly good Indian wine without spoiling our reputations” and another used the phrase “out of station chappies.”  Terms such as these are now less likely to be used in India , however, words that are still used have actually been declared  “obsolete” by the OED. These include “condole,” for  to  grieve and “prepone” to mean the opposite of postpone.

In addition to archaic use, Indian English tends to be replete with effusive phraseology. “Don't eat my head” denotes irritation,  and if your head is “eating circles”  you are most likely giddy.  If someone utters “My head is paining, father serious,” the person has a headache exacerbated by their father being very ill.  Should an Indian inquire “For what joy?” the individual is trying to find out your reasons for a particular action.Also, nobody can accuse Indian English of brevity. The expression “Please respond” is likely to be replaced with the long-winded “Beg the pleasure of your response” or if a quick answer is required, “Please revert at the earliest reply.” The Indian English newspapers have large matrimonial sections where you`re likely to find wordy entreaties such as “seeking mutual alliance for a daughter.” My favourite description of the ideal partner for a bride-seeking fellow, however,  was the oxymoronic “traditional with modern outlook.”

The syntax and grammar in Indian English can sometimes be perplexing to outsiders. The sentence structure can vary from the norm. In Indian English it is acceptable to say “What you would like to buy?,” “ It is the nature’s way”  or “my all friends are waiting.”   Also acceptable are verbal constuctions  such as “He is having many books” or “I am understanding it.” The present perfect is used often instead of the simple past so someone might say “I have brought the book yesterday.”  Single nouns are sometimes assigned a plural form of the verb or plural nouns a singular verb, e.g. “My marriages was typical arranged.”  Certain verbs might be employed differently. For example, one doesn’t “obtain” permission;  rather one “’takes” permission.

Notwithstanding that even some Indians view Indian English as sub-standard, for more  than fifty years, Indians have been exacting a modicum of revenge on the legacy of the British Raj by re-inventing English. In 1947, Indian writer Raja Rao was one of the early advocates of a distinct Indian style of English: “We cannot write like the English. We should not… Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.” Given that in the last three decades India has supplied several Booker Prize winners for the best novel in any Commonwealth country, I think it fair to say that time has spoken. As a  character in Hanif Kureishi’s  1995 novel The Black Album  affirms “they gave us the language but it is only we who know how to use it.”

Richler's book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in spring 2016.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Electile Dysfunction

Deconstructing the Political E.D.: electile dysfunctionality


Howard Richler

Anyday now, the writ will be dropped in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will advise the Governor-General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament. Johnston will then issue a writ of election for a new Parliament and the federal election season will commence. Actually, no writ is dropped ; writs of election are issued, and the sense of drop is idiomatic as in “drop a line” or “drop in.” The term “drop the writ” is a corruption of “draw up the writ” and in 2005 the CBC issued a style memorandum to journalists advising them not to drop the drop the writ phrase but being more colourful than the “correct” term, it has endured.

An electoral term with a surprising origin is “riding.” Only in Canada is an electoral district referred to by this term but we have to look to Yorkshire, England for the word's provenance. One would suppose that the term has something to do with the verb “to ride” but such is not the case. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided for administrative purposes into three ridings and the key word here is “three.” The word riding came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse thrithjungr, “third part” and was originally rendered in English as “trithing.”

Just as “riding” is not connected to “ride” the word candidate is not related to the candid nature of those seeking office. If candidates were etymologically correct, they would wear white clothes as the word derives from the Latin candidatus, “dressed in white.” In ancient Rome is was the custom for those standing for election in the Senate to don white togas probably in an attempt to convince the populace they were as pure as snow.

Another word that only appears during an election is “hustings,” and as we know candidates are prone to hitting them during campaigns. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “hustings” as “The political campaigning leading up to an election, e.g., canvassing votes and making speeches.” The word was originally rendered in the singular and literally means “house thing” but “thing” originally had the sense of “meeting” or “assembly,” and these council meetings would be called by a lord or king and attended by his particular “house.” Over time “husting” acquired other specific meanings such as a court of law in the Guildhall in London and a platform on which candidates stood to address the electorate. In the 20th century “hustings” has come to refer to the general hullabaloo created during an election campaign.

When you cast your ballot, you might take solace that although riding doesn't derive from ride, ballot does come from “ball” as we borrowed the word from the Italian ballotta, “little ball.” In days of yore, people often voted by dropping little balls into a receptacle. The first OED citation of the word in 1561 states: “Boxes into whiche if he wyll, he may let fall his ballot, that no man can perceiue hym.” Related to “ballot” is the idea that since a white ball often meant a “yes” vote and a black ball designated a “no” vote, the term blackball came to refer to exclusion from a club in the late 18th century.

By the way, if you happen to believe that politicians are crooks, it might be because you somehow intuited that etymologically the word “Tory” is associated with thievery. According to the OED, the original sense of Tory, “In the 17th century, {was} one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers.” Lest you find this anti-Irish, you can take small comfort from knowing that the OED points out that within a decade the word's banditry label was extended to other races, such as Scottish Highlanders. It quickly became a term to refer to any Irish Papist and by the middle of the seventeenth century the word was often used by British commentators as a synonym for “bandit.” Through a process of major political flip-flopping over the years, this term originally referring to brigands came to refer to those who vigorously supported the Crown.

Now that you're lexically prepared, don't neglect to follow the dropping of the writ and vote for the candidate in your riding by dropping the ball for the party who might be Tory, but certainly doesn't harbour bandits ( with the possible exception of a handful of Senators).

Howard Richler's book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

Monday, July 6, 2015

How Hot Dog Got Its Name

On July 4 the attention of all gourmands will be turned to the most All-American of all sporting competitions. I speak, of course, about Nathan’s Hot-Dog Eating Contest held annually on Coney Island, New York. Legend states that on July 4, 1916 four immigrants partook in a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous stand on Coney Island to settle a dispute as to which of the voracious gentlemen were most patriotic to their adopted land. Last year, American Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won his eighth consecutive title by consuming 62 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. More than 40,000 spectators attended this cholesterol-imbibing orgy.

As we approaching the dog days of summer and this momentous event, this is a good time to discuss the origin of one of the most quintessential American words — hot dog.
Lore has it that in 1900 sports cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan was ingesting a sausage at the New York Polo Grounds, the baseball Giants’ home park. Since there had been rumours that canine meat was prevalent in the sausages, he dubbed his bunned lunch “hot dog.” His subsequent caricature of a dachshund on a bun got the goat of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, which instituted a policy of banning the term “hot dog” by concessionaires — insisting instead on the use of PC terms such as “Coney Islands,” “red hots” or “frankfurters.” The Dorgan etymology has been repeated by many language writers including Bill Bryson in Made in America.

There are, however, some problems with this account. Dorgan was working in San Francisco in 1900 and did not move to New York until 1903. Also, no one has uncovered the Dorgan cartoon in question. He did, however, sketch some “hot dog” cartoons in 1906 from a bicycle race in Madison Square Gardens. All this suggests that the traditional etymology is apocryphal.
Sausages have fallen in price one half, since the dog killers have commenced operations
The first printed references to “hot dog” occur in the 1890s. On Sept 28, 1893, the Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal displayed the term, and earlier, on May 20, 1893, the New Brunswick (New Jersey) Daily Times had an article that related how the shore town of Asbury Park had passed a by-law to fine “hot-dog peddlers.”

But the term “hot dog” only became popular because of a reference in Yale Record of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. In 1895. Apparently the word “dog” had been a university slang term for “sausage” for at least a decade by then. A lunch wagon that operated nightly at Yale was dubbed “The Kennel Club” as the humble sausage represented its specialty. A poem was written in the aforementioned newspaper entitled “Echoes from the lunch wagon.”
“Tis dogs’ delight to bark and bite,”
Thus does the adage run.
But I delight to bite the dog
When placed inside a bun.

By this time, there had been accusations that sausage-makers were “dogging” their product for more than half a century. An article in New York Commercial Advertiser of July 6, 1838 quipped, “Sausages have fallen in price one half, in New York since the dog killers have commenced operations.”

Due to the supposed canine constitution of the sausages by the middle of the 19th century, it is not surprising that researchers have found earlier references to the term “hot dog.”
In fact, lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported in his Word Routes column some years ago that law librarian Fred Shapiro of Yale University found this entry in the Dec. 31, 1892 edition of Paterson (New Jersey) Daily Press: “Somehow or other a frankfurter and a roll seem to go right to the spot where the void is felt the most. The small boy has got on such familiar terms with this sort of lunch that he now refers to it as “hot dog.” “Hey Mister, give me a hot dog quick,” was the startling order that a rosy-cheeked gamin hurled at the man as a Press reporter stood close by last night. The “hot dog” was quickly inserted in a gash on a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the “dog” with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled.” Shapiro’s discovery is important because it demonstrates that the term hot dog had some print currency before it was adopted by students at Yale
Zimmer did some sleuthing and unearthed the identity of this hot dog purveyor —  Thomas Francis Xavier Morris, known in Paterson as “Pepper Sauce” Morris. Morris had previously lived in Germany where he may have learned his frankfurter flavouring formula. His 1907 obituary stated that, “Besides peddling hot frankfurters Morris made pepper sauce that he supplied to many families the condiments being much sought after.”

For a while the term hot dog competed for supremacy with frankfurter, red hot and wiener but by 1910, largely due to its Ivy League connection, hot dog became the definitive term for this food.
Enjoy the July 4th festivities you intrepid carnivorous gladiators, and don’t forget to pack plenty of Zantac and Gaviscon.

Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Canadianisms in OED Online

Yes fellow Canucks, we are a distinct society


Howard Richler

(Last of a three-part series on the OED Online)

The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCEL) is missing an "s" at the end of its title. OCEL has headings for over four hundred varieties of our multitudinous mother tongues, such as Australian English, Singapore English, Indian English and Black Vernacular English. I've never even heard of some of the varieties, such as Babu English, which is described in the OCEL as “a mode of address and reference in several Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi, for officials working for rajahs, landlords, etc,”

My mother tongue is actually one of those mutants listed in OCEL. To illustrate the particulars of this form of English, I 've concocted the following paragraph which consists of many words and terms found in the OED that might only be understood by Canadians: “The party was attended by rubbies sporting Molson muscles drinking mickeys and Bloody Caesars. The food eaten by the hosers consisted of tourtieres and Nanaimo bars, along with poutine mostly uneaten and chucked down the garburator.” Some explanation may be in order. Rubby is defined in the OED as “an alcoholic who drinks an improvised intoxicant, such as rubbing alcohol...” Molson muscles is a jocular term for a paunch, mickey is defined as “chiefly Canadian, a small bottle of libation holding 3.75 ml,” and a Bloody Caesar, is a drink consisting of vodka, clamato juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce that's virtually unknown outside of Canada. It was invented in Calgary in 1969 by bartender Walter Chell. A hoser refers to a stupid, unsophisticated person and the term was popularized by the fictional McKenzie brothers in their skit Great White North on SCTV. Surprisingly, poutine only made into the OED in 2006; Nanaimo bar, originated in Nanaimo B.C, in the 1950s. It is defined as a “dessert consisting of a base made from a mixture of crushed biscuits and covered with a vanilla buttercream filling and a chocolate glaze, served cut in squares.” A garburator is a waste disposal unit found underneath a sink designed to shred waste into small pieces that can pass through household plumbing. The OED adds that “the form Garberator is a proprietary name in Canada.”

The OED informs us that certain words take on distinct senses in Canada. Not surprisingly in Canada, bilingualism means more than speaking one language and refers to the government that promotes the use of French and English throughout large segments of the population. Acclamation also acquires a distinct Canadian sense when it is used to mean an election to an assembly without opposition or by unanimous or overwheming support. Even adjectives can be Canadianized as is the case of impaired when it refers to improper driving caused by alcohol or narcotics.

If you spend any amount of time with Americans, you're likely to be apprised that part of your lexicon are quaint Canadianisms. For example, when an American is nauseous, she won’t reach for Gravol but for Dramamin. And while Javex, and Varsol may be Canadian household items, an American will not know what these terms mean and will reference them as chlorine bleach, and mineral spirits respectively. The OED extends this point by listing the terms block heater and power bar as “chiefly Canadian.” In Canada, it is clear that a power bar refers to an electrical cord containing a number of outlets, whereas in the US, the OED informs us it could mean a proprietary name for a type of snack food and in the past to a tread on a tractor tire. The term blue box originated in Canada referring to the blue plastic box used for the collection of recyclable household items in many Canadian municipalities. Its first citation in 1983 comes from the Toronto Star but it seems to have spread overseas as there is a 2010 citation from the Birmingham Evening Mail. Also, I was not aware that the term crowd-surfing originated in Canada. The OED defines it “the action of lying flat while being passed over the heads of members at a rock concert, typically from jumping into the audience from the stage. Its first citation occurs in the Globe and Mail in 1989 but by 2002 we find its use in the New York Times.

I suspect that there are few people who are aware that muffin before the Tim Horton era had a distinct Canadian sense. The OED defines it as “a young woman...who regular parners a particular man, during a social season.” The first citation in 1854 states “ I had a charming muffin yesterday. She is engaged to be married, so don't be alarmed.” Its last citation from 1965 testifies to the term being archaic.

I was perplexed as to why the OED includes the term pocket rocket which is defined as “a nickname for a small person regarded as a very fast or energetic person (originally a nickname given to Canadian hockey player Henri Richard).” Surprisingly,this term isn't considered worthy of inclusion in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary which has a far larger collection of Canadian terms. On the other hand, the OED does not contain these jewels of Canadiana: all-dressed, smoked meat and shit-disturber, but worry not as I have appealed for their inclusion.

Richler's latest book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in spring 2016.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Many Flavors of English

(This is the second part of a three part series that explains the various dimensions of the OED)

The many dimensions of the OED Online


Howard Richler

(Part two of a three part series)

The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) affords word lovers a myriad of ways to explore the English language.The largest area for searches occurs in the category section that is sub-divided into four parts: Subject, Usage, Regions and Origin. Under Subject, one can check words on a plethora of topics such as Education, Military and Law.

In the Law section, there are over 8,000 words, such as recusal, abeyance, and codicil, many of which will be known to those familiar with legal terms. However, for readers who delight in arcane words, you will discover expessions such as bastardy order “an order made by a magistrate for the support of an illegitimate child by a putative father” and alnage, “the action of ... determining whether woolen cloth conforms to particular standards of shape and quality as required... under British law.” For those mining obscure legal words you'd likely find them in legal sub-categories such as Medieval, Ecclesiastical and Roman law. For example in feudal times bloodwite referred to “ a fine payable for the shedding of blood,” whereas lairwite, was a “fine for fornication or adultery with a bondwoman.” Corsned in Old English law referred to a type of trial by ordeal in which an accused person would eat a one-ounce piece of barley bread and cheese which was consecrated by exorcism. Supposedly, if the accused was guilty, his eating the holy bread would cause him to go into convulsions and choke. In days of yore, reaggravation was something best avoided as it referred to “the second warning given to a person before final excommunication.” This, however, was probably not as dangerous to your well-being as perduellion which in Roman Law denoted high treason.” Also in Roman law, it wasn't necessarily a good thing to be emancipated as this could refer to being delivered into servitude or subjugation because emancipation was often effected by fictitious sale.

The many flavours of English found in the OED Online

The Regions category demonstrates the incredible variety that marks 21st century English. And even though English is spoken virtually everywhere on this planet it may not seem like the same language to all based on distinctive vocabulary one finds in different parts of the English-speaking world.

Former British colonies often display flavourful Englishes. In Jamaica, nyam means to “eat voraciously” and Babylon is a “dismissive term for something regarded as representing the degenerative or oppressive nature of white culture.” In South Africa, skindering is a word for gossip and if you're babalaas, you're suffering from a hangover, which is probably not kwaai, a slang term for “cool.” It's also not kwaai to be a moegoe, a country bumpkin or gullible person. In West Africa you don’t remove someone from authority, you destool them which may be a result of a palaver, a “dispute.” Colloquially, palaver can be used to mean “problem,” as in “That's your palaver.” In New Zealand, you don’t attend a funeral but a tangi and if a New Zealander tells you to hook your mutton, you haven't received an invitation to dine on sheep, rather you've been told to “clear out.”

In India, you'll find that familiar words might have very different meanings. For example, intermarriage refers not only to people of different religions getting hitched but also to people from different castes. Accomplish often will have the distinct sense of “to make complete or perfect” and cabin usually refers to an office or office cubicle.If someone in India or other South Asia locales says they’re going to send you their biodata, understand the term to mean curricilum vitae, (CV). We in Canada call where we put the luggage in our car the trunk; the Brits call it the boot but in India it is called the dicky. Also certain terms that have been obsolete for over a century in England live on in India, including the verbs condole “to offer condolences” and prepone “to bring forward to an earlier time or date.” Unfortunately, the euphemistic term eve-teasing is heard all too often in India; it refers to the sexual harassment of a woman by a man in a public place. One of the more amusing descriptions of a person in East Asia is astronaut. This designation describes a “high-flying” business person, semi-permanently in transit between locales such as Hong Kong and Vancouver because his/her family has emigrated.

And even when you happen upon a country where most people speak English as a first language, don't assume you'll understand the lingo. In Australia if someone asks you where the dunny is, they’re looking for the toilet. If you've been referred to as a wowser, don't feel complemented as it means “party-pooper” as the term refers to a puritanical person who disapproves of dancing and drinking. Alas, it is not only Down Under where you may feel at a linguistic loss partying in an English-speaking area. In Scotland you are not the life of the party if you are described as fire-raising. You are accused of arson!

Nor should we Canucks regard ourselves as language purists, as in next month's issue, I'll explore one of my favourite mutations of our native tongue: Canadian English.

Richler's next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


(This is the first of a 3 part series on the features of the OED Online. Originally published in a slightly different format in Lexpert).
The magna cum laude of dictionaries


Howard Richler

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.

Historical Thesaurus

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.