Thoughts on the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary[*] merges the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED1), published between 1884 and 1928, with the recent (1972-1986) four-volume Supplement, to produce an extremely handsome and typographically seamless whole. The editors of OED1 set out to give a full historical account of all the words ever used in the English language; the editor of the Supplement, R.W. Burchfield, aimed to update OED with comprehensive evidence on 20th-century words and senses. So OED2, which combines these two dictionaries, makes a substantial claim to lexical authority. OED2 contains over half a million definitions, including 5000 which entered the lexicographers’ files after the relevant volume of the Supplement appeared. The new edition also switches to the International Phonetic Alphabet for representing pronunciation. How successful has the project been, and how useful is this publication?
The first question is difficult to answer. The riches stored in the two previous dictionaries are now much more accessible, and reviewers have already reported how delightful it is to browse through one of the 20 handsome volumes of OED2, and ponder, marvel or cavil at individual words and definitions among the extraordinary wealth of examples recorded on its pages. But what can such sample browsing tell us about the project as a whole, which purports to provide a systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary? To make an assessment of the dictionary in its entirety, we need to judge its editorial premises and methodology. This boils down to three separate factors, crucial to any lexicographical enterprise: the nature of the sources consulted to supply evidence on word usage, the thoroughness and accuracy with which these sources were read, and the use made by the lexicographers of the evidence which the source study provided. Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult for the average OED2 user to form an accurate opinion on any of these three factors.
The obvious place to look is the Introduction. OED2 reprints the Historical Introduction to the OED1 by C.T. Onions, which tells how the editors, headed by James Murray, relied on armies of volunteer readers. These readers worked through lists of titles provided for them by the editors, and recorded on slips of paper the words and senses (in their original context) they thought worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. The slips were returned to the editors, who analysed them to draw up their categories of the various senses of words, and choose which quotations should illustrate which usage.
But Onions leaves us hungry for more information, especially on the three major lexicographical factors I have identified above: source material, reader proficiency, and the processing of the readers’ evidence. How did the editors decide on which sources to read? Was there a policy of balancing literary with non-literary sources? Did the editors carry out any vetting process, or did they accept all those who volunteered to be readers? How efficient and accurate were the readers, and how was this tested? What sorts of implications did the change-over of editors have for editorial policy, and how does this affect the dictionary?
The Introductions to OED1 and the Supplement do not answer these questions. James Murray’s grand-daughter gives more information in her book Caught in the Web of Words, which paints an extraordinary picture of the difficulties and problems which made Murray’s achievement even more heroic, but also more flawed, than is usually presented. Her account is not reassuring about the quality of the readers and the editorial processing of their material. Numerous problems arose from relying heavily on voluntary (and therefore unskilled) labour. Murray describes the readers’ ‘most pernicious and deceptive practice’ of reading books for particular letters only, and their tendency to pass over illustrations of the usage of common words. Murray also worried ceaselessly about the scholarly consequences of the pressures placed upon him by his publishers to complete the work. For example, he lamented in a letter to a friend, the distinguished Medievalist W.W. Skeat: ‘I have always said that the letter [E] ought to be done again.’ Such a statement, from the person who had best cause to know the relationship between the evidence and the dictionary’s treatment of it, is extremely disquieting. Was Murray merely a worrying, busybody perfectionist, or are some of his concerns well grounded? Should we trust the evidence on words beginning with E as reliable, or not? OED2 provides no answers, since it makes no reference to Murray’s reservations.
So far as I know, only one study of OED1 makes any attempt to subject it to thorough-going methodological examination. This is the little-known but revelatory book by Jürgen Schäfer on OED documentation.[†] In a paragraph that ought to be placed at the head of the introductory matter to the second OED, with its import prominently displayed in the self-lauding publicity material, Schäfer soberly remarks:
The increasing discrepancy between the methods used at that time [i.e., when OED was compiled] and those used now for evaluation calls for a detailed analysis of the nature and reliability of the OED documentation itself. Insted of providing an unquestioned basis for further research, the OED has to become its object. If we are ignorant of the premises of the OED documentation, we cannot properly evaluate it; and it is indeed remarkable how little is known about the application of the principles set forth in the introduction of the dictionary. Selection and distribution of source texts, lemmatisation policy, consistency of approach under various editors, to mention only a few of the major questions, have only recently begun to be studied in detail, despite the fact that all of these may have far-reaching consequences for the nature of the OED documentation and, of course, for any conclusions based upon it.
Schäfer chooses to examine just one aspect of OED policy: the accuracy of the dates given for the first use of a word. He reread a selection of the sources read by OED to discover that ‘at least one-third of the potential first citations in any corpus examined for the OED was normally overlooked.’ Of these, 30 per cent would shift OED dates by over fifty years, 7 per cent by over one hundred years.
One cause of such striking inaccuracy is that some authors were much better known and loved by the OED readers than others. The works of Shakespeare and Milton were combed for OED quotations with far greater thoroughness than those of Malory and Wyatt, which means that the former are disproportionately well-represented in the dictionary. Shakespeare is listed as the first user of 1904 words in OED, but 50 of these can be ante-dated from the works of Nashe alone, an author also read by OED for the same period.
[*] The second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published on 30 March and discussed here by Frank Kermode (LRB, 20 April).
[†] Documentation in the OED (Oxford, 1980).
Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989
From Mark Wainwright
It is of course always pleasant to read a review listing the shortcomings of a new, 20-volume dictionary which one has no intention of buying. However, Charlotte Brewer, in her indictment of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (LRB, 31 August), makes one continual mistake: to wit, the apparent assumption that no other dictionaries exist: ‘More worrying is the failure … to include many words from half a dozen recent American dictionaries … if the OED passes them over, how will historians two hundred years hence make sense of many aspects of our popular culture?’ The answer is simple: if you want to know in detail about American usage from a particular period, consult an American dictionary of that period. In any event, to find out about such ‘trivial and (possibly) transient’ words, surely no one would turn to a dictionary where, between the start of publication of the first and of the second editions, there is a gap of some hundred years. A great deal of words would, in that time, have come, served their purpose and left, leaving no trace; the dictionary would simply fail to record many of them, particularly those beginning with the letter A.
Later again Ms Brewer writes: the new edition ‘did not attempt to provide modern examples for words and senses which were recorded in OED1 and provided with at least one 19th-century quotation there, and are still current … Is it really possible that usage has remained so static? And indeed, in many cases it has not: the problem is sometimes that current usages are not recorded in OED2, sometimes that this dictionary gives a misleading indication of the current acceptability or frequency of earlier usages.’ Ms Brewer cites the example of greed, where OED2 makes no connection with food, and then of the adverb darkling: ‘No indication is given that the word is now … strictly limited to poetic use. How will this be useful to the dictionary-user two hundred years hence?’ No doubt it will not: but the sensible dictionary-user two hundred years hence will turn to a dictionary produced more regularly and more able to keep up with trends in usage. The outstanding example on this side of the Atlantic is, as many LRB readers will testify, Chambers. Let us see how it fares: the first words under the definition of greedy are ‘having a voracious appetite’; the unfortunate adverb is listed as darklings and marked poet. (the form darkling itself is not so marked).
Elsewhere Ms Brewer complains ‘the entry on finalise gives us no clue that thirty years ago this word was fiercely resisted in the States.’ But it is not an American dictionary – nor, obviously, is it being published thirty years ago. As to more contemporary disputes, Chambers marks the offending usage of hopefully as coll., of refute as loosely and of swell as slang. Of the use of infer to mean ‘to imply’, it remarks, ‘a use now often condemned, but generally accepted for over four centuries’ – a nice example of the wry humour which endears the dictionary to so many users.
The moral is clear. For precise details of contemporary usages, turn to a dictionary which is published regularly. If any readers are yet unconvinced I suggest that they compare the two dictionaries’ definition of Sloane Ranger. OED2: of, pertaining to or characteristic of ‘an upper-class and fashionable but conventional young woman in London. Also occasionally extended to any member of the class to which such young women belong.’ This is followed by a number of quotations which nevertheless – perhaps because they are out of context – never quite capture the flavour imparted by Chambers: ‘A young person, typically upper-(middle-) class and female, favouring expensively casual clothing suggestive of rural pursuits, speaking in distinctively clipped tones, evincing certain predictable enthusiasms and prejudices and resident (during the week) in the Sloane Square area of London or a comparable part.’
I imagine that the complete corpus of editions of Chambers published this century would take up less shelf space than one 20-volume OED, and the wise historian two hundred years hence will do well to invest in it.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Vol. 11 No. 19 · 12 October 1989
From Charlotte Brewer
I think Mark Wainwright’s letter (Letters, 28 September) confirms my point. A dictionary that announces itself as ‘the Second Edition of the most authoritative and comprehensive dictionary of English in the world’, and claims to provide ‘the first up-to-date coverage of words and meanings in one alphabetical sequence since the original edition was completed in 1928’, might do better with 20th-century vocabulary, both English English and non-English English, especially when it makes special claims to this effect. See, for example, Burchfield on this in the Preface to the Supplement Volume One (incorporated, of course, in OED2): ‘Our aim has been first and foremost to ensure that all “common words” [sic] (and senses) in British written English of the period 1884 to the present day … are included.’ And there are the following remarks in the publicity material:
In the 20th century, American English has come into its own – a shift reflected in everything from the jargon of Wall Street (sick market, Fortune 500) to the vocabulary of popular culture (rapping, break dancing). The language continues to develop throughout the world, so that the English of today is truly international. The Oxford English Dictionary records all these influences minutely.
All monolingual general dictionaries of the same language copy from each other (to a greater or lesser extent – this has been true since before Johnson’s time). OED, the Supplement and OED2 were/are completely honest about this since they list other dictionaries in their bibliographies. Hence my point that omitting words like service break seems difficult to justify.
All Souls College, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989
From J.A. Simpson
Dr Charlotte Brewer’s article ‘Thoughts on the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary’ (LRB, 31 August) identifies a number of aspects of the OED which require revision. Many of these aspects are in fact addressed in the preliminary matter of the Second Edition.
It is the duty of Oxford University Press to keep the OED up to date. The Supplement to the OED, published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986, constitutes the pre-eminent set of revisions and amendments to the original OED, covering especially the vocabulary of the 20th century in the United Kingdom, North America, and the other main English-speaking regions of the world. When the Supplement was nearing completion in the early Eighties OUP began to consider various ways in which the Dictionary could be comprehensively revised and updated for the future. There were many factors involved: the enormous amount of scholarly work on pronunciation and etymology which had taken place since the publication of OED1; developments (especially in scientific and technological areas) which had left some of the original definitions outmoded; the need to update the collection of illustrative quotations for items not covered by the Supplement, and to incorporate the many thousands of antedatings discovered by scholars, not least by the Dictionary staff themselves – to mention but a few major areas. It would have been possible to postpone publication until every facet of the revision had been completed. Alternatively, the project could have been divided into phases, with the publication of OED2 somewhere along the path from initial computerisation to complete revision. It was the opinion of Oxford University Press, as an academic publisher, that the needs of the scholarly world, and of all those interested in the minutiae of the language in book form and on computer media, would be best served by the phased approach outlined above. The question then remained, at which stage along the path of revision should OED2 be published.
A complex plan was drawn in which all the computerising, updating and revision tasks were identified and assigned a priority. The first phase of the plan, it was decided, would result in the publication of a second edition of the OED which would contain not only the integrated texts of the original OED and its Supplement but also additional material, in the form of some 5000 new words and senses supplementing the integrated text and covering many of the major lexical developments in the English-speaking world over the past quarter-century. The contents were also to be modified by converting the many thousands of pronunciations from the original notation of Sir James Murray to the standard International Phonetic Alphabet and by making a large number of alterations to the texts of definitions to correct historical and other anomalies in OED 1 which were no longer appropriate in the late 20th century.
Clearly the initial task was to computerise the existing text of the OED and its Supplement, adding structural codes so that the material was readily amenable to integration, alteration and augmentation in the future. This was a radical, innovative task in the world of reference publishing (indeed in the world of publishing as a whole), fraught with uncertainty and risk. This technical undertaking and the parallel and equally onerous editorial activity culminated in the publication last March of the Second Edition of the OED, on schedule and on budget. This phase of the project also allowed us to publish, in conjunction with Tristar Inc., an experimental CD-ROM version of the original OED, thereby giving scholars access to a vast wealth of lexical material through complex search software. Building on the experience gained from this CD-ROM we are now developing, and plan to publish in the early Nineties, an even more ambitious CD-ROM version of the Second Edition of the OED. The remarkable enthusiasm throughout the world for the publication of OED2 has justified the decision of Oxford University Press, and lays a firm foundation for the exciting task of incorporating further revisions which lies in the immediate future. The Second Edition represents a consolidation of everything achieved so far by the OED in the historical lexicography of the English language.
It is difficult to see how to answer Mark Wainwright’s letter (Letters, 28 September) on a comparison of OED2 with Chambers, which must embarrass the publishers of Chambers as much as it does other lexicographers. The dictionaries serve entirely different purposes: to praise Chambers for defining greedy as ‘having voracious appetite’ (OED: ‘having an intense desire or inordinate voracious appetite for food or drink; ravenous, voracious, gluttonous’ and recorded from Beowulf to modern times) is fine, but the comparison should be made with the Concise Oxford (‘having inordinate appetite for food or drink, gluttonous’). But it is futile to trade definitions. The editor of Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary (1901) graciously acknowledged the place of the OED in English lexicography. English lexicography has itself been enjoying a renaissance over the last twenty years, with the OED as its flagship.
Co-Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989
From Robert Barnhart
Much of Charlotte Brewer’s criticism of OED2 (LRB, 31 August) is founded on statements made by Jürgen Schäfer that question documentation of data from reading ‘a selection of the sources read by the OED’ and deducing that about ‘one-third of the potential first citations in any corpus examined for the OED was normally overlooked.’ Schäfer, however, read against a specific corpus already gathered – a very different task from a first reading – and found 37 per cent of missed first citations that are antedatings of only fifty to a hundred years. Of course the earliest quotation is not tantamount to first use but represents the time about which a word or meaning is shown by available evidence to have become current in English. Available evidence was and remains a recurring problem for dictionary editors, and particularly the time before 1500 for the OED editors because the Early English Text Society had not yet produced the wealth of material that is accessible now in the Middle English Dictionary. An interesting example (from the review) is the verb mirror, which occurs in the work of Nashe some 227 years earlier than in OED’s first citation from Keats. In fact, mirror occurred as early as 1410 (adding nearly two hundred more years to its story). The sources of OED1 were what was available to the editors at the time. The same is true of OED2, which also had access to the Barnhart file and the Merriam file. Both are based on a wide reading of magazines and newspapers, which accounts for some of the shift in evidence from the OED1 sources before 1800. Systematic citation of usage is usually considered sufficient evidence for users to make their own decisions, a logical editorial policy but difficult to execute evenly. Hopefully, cited by the reviewer, is a case where quotes show that though the usage is not universally acceptable, it appears without exception in many standard sources of contemporary English. Of more significance is that the 1932 quote shows that hopefully (’in the sense of it is to be hoped that’) was a natural use in English before the post-war era of daily contact between English and German – which suggests that it is not a loan translation.
The criticism of entries ‘whose last illustrative quotation is dated pre-1850 – i.e. 150-odd years before the date of publication’ – is valid and significant. The record should be brought up to date, perhaps as a feature of the electronic OED2. But despite the severe constraints of time and money imposed by the Press, the OED remains the greatest record in existence of any language.
Barnhart Books, New York