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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

(This article appeared originally in a slightly modified form in the April 2015 edition of Lexpert)
                           Expressions we love to hate


                                         Howard Richler

Think outside the box. Like a kid in a candy store. The tip of the iceberg. At the end of the day.

All these expressions are recognized as clichés, and I even though I realize this, I am not above occasionally spicing up my speech or writing with their use. But what exactly is a cliché? Lexicographically this is easy to answer. For example, the first defintion in the OED from 1832 states, “The French name for a stereotype block, a cast...; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.” By the end of the 19th century the sense of “stereotype” was extended to expressions that were reusable. The OED also informs us that when used as an adjective cliché means “stereotyped, hackneyed.”

In the real as opposed to the lexicographic world, however, deciding whether an expression is stereotyped or hackneyed is highly subjective. One person's cliché, may be another a person's idiom or a spouse's favourite Biblical proverb or Shakespearean quote.

Clichés have become an easy target for writers on language. Longman Guide to English Usage describes clichés as “substitutes for independent thinking or writing.” The Canadian Writer's Handbook states that they “are another form of wordiness: they are tired, worn out, all too familiar, and therefore generally contribute little to a sentence.., They are another kind of deadwood that can be edited out of a draft.” Donna Woolfolk Cross in her book Word Abuse is even more censorious: “Clichés don't have to make a great deal of sense. Whether they do or not, people keep using them. A person who wouldn't dream of using someone else's toothbrush will feel not a qualm about using someone else's tired expression.” This position, I believe, is too harsh for several reasons. An expression might be viewed as a cliché in one context but its meaning might be both crystal clear and effective in another. In any case, a cliché may be overused but because it is common it is likely to be understood. Philip Howard, in The State of the Language, writes “Poets and philosophers mint brand new language. The rest of us have to make do with the common currency that passes ceaselessly from hand to eye and mouth to ear. The most overworked cliché is better than an extravagant phrase that does not come off.” Also, clichés are often the most effective way to introduce informality into discussions that require this tone. They also help establish a rapport between writers or speakers whose audience is faced with comprehending a subject that it finds challenging.

And we should not forget that some clichés are overused because they are clever, notwithstanding they are not original. But, of course, they were original at one point and because of their cleverness attracted hordes of imitators. So a cliché is often a victim of its own success, hoist with its own petard. One can imagine an adolescent seeing Hamlet for the first time and when asked his opinion of the play replying that it was just a bunch of clichés from pop songs such as “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Sweets For My Sweet.”

Clichés also serve a purpose when one needs to write quickly with a tight deadline given originality can be a time-consuming process. As such, because journalists are often under extreme time constraints, a great part of journalistic writing is cliché-ridden. Observe this imagined news report: It's not rocket science that for all intents and purposes we've thrown caution to the wind and are at the tipping point of a slippery slope in our battle against climate change unless we change the political landscape. And, at times, clichés are indispensable because the alternative are very long descriptions. Two examples that come to mind in this category are “brain drain” and “sour grapes.”

This is not to say that certain clichés, shouldn't be avoided. For example, some are actually longer than the non-clichéd option. Cases in point: “At the end of the day” can be shortened to “finally”; “at any given time” to “whenever” and “at the present time” to “now.” Clichés can be misapplied at times leading to a possible lack of clarity. Take the expression “best-kept secret.” If you google this phrase along with “Toronto restaurants” you'll get over 200,000 hits. Methinks these particular “best-kept secrets” are rather well-publicized. This expression offers a moment of cognitive befuddlement best avoided by the careful writer. Also, clichés tend to be hyperbolic when the sense being implied is more measured. Such is the case of “Small actions can make a world of difference” spotted at It is unlikely that the difference effected qualifies with the largeness of “worlds.”

My final word: The inventive writer or speaker should avoid clichés like the plague.

Howard's next book Wordplay: Arranged &Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.