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The Oxford English Dictionary


Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the O.E.D., takes pleasure in describing how online publishing has improved his venerable institution.

OED internet home page
The O.E.D.'s internet home page
© Reproduced with the permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
Before 2000, updating the O.E.D. was such a mammoth undertaking that, although there were supplements and additions on which the Second Edition of 1989 was based, it had never fully been revised. But since March 2000, the revised O.E.D. has been published in quarterly alphabetical sections, and since 2001 new words from outside those sections have also been published. The evermore powerful and user-friendly website is, as Weiner says, "responsive, searchable and flexible in ways the book could never be."

Weiner explains that rolling publication makes a dramatic difference to how it feels to work on the O.E.D. Beforehand, toiling towards a distant target could become oppressive, and it was stressful to know that anything that got missed would stay missed for a long time. "It is morale-boosting to know that the fruits of one’s labours will soon be visible, and it also keeps you on your toes. Also, while our standards haven’t dropped, it’s reassuring to know that if a reader brings something new to light, we can revise the online version."

Weiner breaks his time at the dictionary into three periods:

  • Before 1989, everything was still paper-oriented.

  • From 1989 to 2000, the lexicographers increasingly used computers and databases, and began to develop a vision of what the online O.E.D. would be like.

  • Since 2000, this vision has started to be realised. It is now possible, for instance, to search instantly for all the words for which Shakespeare was the first cited author – bloodstained, catlike, downstairs, employment and fashionable among them.

The web is a verbal medium, and increasing numbers of words are having their first published use online. The O.E.D. wants to cite these uses, but online publishing is only semi-permanent – material can be erased or altered. Graeme Diamond, principal editor, New Words, explains that the dictionary is periodically forced to print out a web page, date it and store it in the O.E.D. archive.

This is a small problem to set against the advantages to be gained. Jesse Sheidlower, the O.E.D.’s North American editor-at-large, runs a site hunting the earliest citations of words used in the world of Science Fiction. This project started after a freelance O.E.D. researcher asked the online fan community to look for an earlier Sci Fi use of "mutant" than 1954, and was quickly provided with a 1938 example.

The dictionary was interactive long before the internet - its volunteer reading programmes, instigated in 1857, contributed something like a million quotations to the first edition - but Graeme Diamond says that the internet multiplied the volume of people making contact. Not every voluntary contribution can make its way into the O.E.D., but, says Diamond, "the vast majority of them are interesting, are made in precisely the right spirit, and show a good awareness of what we’re trying to do, and anything we didn’t know before is helpful."

The internet has proved a great opportunity for the O.E.D. As Weiner says, "It contains such wealth that lexicographers have to be more proactive than ever, but the satisfaction of publishing within the online community is greater."