Icons of England
  • Introduction
  • The Icons
  • Nominations
  • News
  • Learn & Play
  • Your Comments

The Oxford English Dictionary

Meet an Editor

Peter Gilliver is a lexicographer working on the O.E.D. So what does that mean, exactly?

OED associate editor Peter Gilliver
O.E.D. associate editor Peter Gilliver
© Cognitive Applications/Daniel Hahn
First of all, what does your work on the O.E.D. entail?

I’m one of the associate editors of the O.E.D.; I’m one of the people whose job it is to revise the entries that are already in the dictionary, most of which have not been revised in the last hundred years. So this afternoon I shall be working on the word "protect" – revising the entry for "protect", the verb. There are two components to revision: one is looking at the definition, the other is looking at the illustrative quotations. Underneath each definition in the O.E.D. there are illustrative quotations, beginning with the earliest known example of the word and taking it right down to the present day, or the most recent example if we think it’s died out. And so I’ll look at the definition, and think: "Has the meaning of this word changed, in which case the definition will need rewording?  Even if the meaning has stayed the same, does the wording of the definition need updating anyway because it was written a hundred years ago?  Then there are the quotations.  We need to show whether a word is still in use and if the entry was written a hundred years ago then the most recent quotation will be a hundred years old, or slightly more.  In the case of a word like "protect" it may be fairly easy to find more recent examples, but that's not always the case.  And it’s not just bringing the end of the paragraph of quotations up to date; if there are gaps in the paragraph – so for example there may be no 18th-century example of one particular sub-sense of the word "protect" – then I would look in our database or look in our files to find examples of the word to fill the gaps. And somebody might have sent us, or we might have found, an earlier example of the word. So it’s those two components, really: the definition and the quotations. The definition may need re-writing in various ways, the quotation paragraph will always need updating.  And then on top of that there’s the etymology, the pronunciation, the list of variant spellings of each word. And then I pass it on to the next person, and move on to my next word…

So "protect" is the word of the afternoon; the whole afternoon?

OED associate editor Peter Gilliver thumbs through word index cards
O.E.D. associate editor Peter Gilliver thumbs through word index cards
© Cognitive Applications/Daniel Hahn
If I’m lucky I’ll finish it by the end of the afternoon. Because one of the other things we sometimes have to do is restructure an entry. The principle is that the senses and sub-senses of the word are listed in the order in which they’re known to have occurred. If in the research that we’ve done we discover that sense 3 is actually attested earlier than sense 2, then we have to swap them over, and maybe if you then read the definitions in that new sequence it doesn’t flow so well, it doesn’t make sense, so you then have to think about the bigger picture. Or you might have to split an existing sense; sense 1 of "protect", verb, has an enormously long definition, and it seems to be covering an awful lot of territory, like a lord protecting his vassals, God protecting his people, on the other hand an umbrella protecting you from the rain… Are they really the same thing? Is there such a big semantic area that I can actually find a way of splitting it that is historically useful – like, one of them is a later development than the other. If a word starts getting used more then it may well develop strands of meaning that weren’t there before. "Precarious" is a good example.

Which is a pr- word, so you worked on it recently…

Yes, that’s why I remember it… Precarious started out to do with precare which means to pray, or to beseech, and I think it was something to do with tenure, or tenancy, that you would hold your land on the understanding that your landlord could have it back at any time, so it was only on sufferance, as it were. Whereas the modern sense of "precarious", meaning physical instability, is a kind of development of that, and that wasn’t really there in the first edition. But that’s a very unusual example of what is essentially almost a completely new sense, distinct from what went before, that wasn’t there. From a precarious existence (which depends on the goodwill of other people) to a precarious physical position, that’s quite a big change – you don’t often see changes that big. So yes, structuring as well as definitions and quotations. So yes, "protect" should take me this afternoon, and then there are all the derivatives, words like protection, protector, protective. Then if I’m really lucky I get to move on to words that don’t begin with "protect-"…

What’s next?

"Pro tem", possibly? There might be something in between, It’s actually quite hard to think about that kind of thing. My previous range began with "prora" - I can’t remember what it means – then went on to "pro rata", and "prorate" (which means to allocate pro rata), and then "prorogue", which is what Parliament does… And then "prose", "prosaic", which is a complete change. Those were my next words. That was a really good range for diversity.

Do you have good bursts of words, and then…

Then you get a whole succession of… working on words beginning with "pre-" was actually not very interesting, because they all had to be dealt with separately, each given its own entry and thought about separately, but actually an awful lot of them mean "to do something before…". "Predict" is a bit more interesting, "prelude" is a bit more interesting; "pre-wash", not very interesting. Actually, even "pre-wash" is relatively interesting… You can get interested about really not very interesting words some of the time…

Is that a useful skill in this job?

Yes, to find every word interesting, to accept that there’s something worth saying about every word that’s in front of you. Not absolutely every word. "Predictable" is all right, there’ll be something to say about "predictable"; but "predictableness"? The state of being predictable, that’s really so obvious, is it really worth saying? But we have to think whether it’s worth giving a definition, and in any case there's the question of how long people have been using the word "predictableness".  Is "predictability" more common? Does it mean exactly the same thing? It’s surprising, the most innocuous-looking, boring-looking, uninteresting-looking, easy-looking word can turn out to have stuff in it that needs investigating. "Protectee", for example: first used in the 17th century to mean – now I don’t know if I’ve got this right – somebody in Ireland who was willing to accept the protection of the British government; it struck me as a very early use of the "–ee" suffix. So that looked like, "protectee", that just means somebody who’s protected, it’ll be a modern word, I thought – but no, it’s got this earlier use.

You’ve been working on this for 19 years – how has it changed?

In one sense, not at all; but really out of all recognition, I suppose. The "not at all" is the important bit which is that what I do is what I always did, which is look at examples of words, look at a dictionary entry – or create a dictionary entry, there’s the new words side of things as well – and try to make sure that the definition matches the evidence. That’s what we do: we’re describing the language. It’s just that what we know of the language we now acquire in different ways.  When I arrived, what we could pick up of the language was all on slips of paper, six inches by four inches, which had been accumulating in our files for decades. Now our ears are much more sensitive than the ears of the first edition; if somebody uses the English language in a particular way somewhere in the world, we can now pick it up in a way that James Murray and his colleagues on the first edition couldn’t have imagined doing. Which is a mixed blessing – it means you hear too much, you hear an awful lot; so in that sense the job has changed. I can actually ask the question, "How old is this word?" and get more of an answer than I could ever have hoped to get when I arrived. Because I can search databases that contain evidence going back to the beginning of printing, an awful lot of material that previously we couldn’t have searched and previous lexicographers couldn’t have imagined searching.

And your icon of England?

For me it would be something musical. I’m very fond of the music of the English renaissance – the turn-of-the-century renaissance – Parry, Stanford, Elgar. Yes, coming over a hill in my brother’s car, seeing a wonderful green valley and hearing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Greensleeves. That’s something that is very English, and something I feel quite strongly about – there are other things that I think of as English, like queuing, but that would get me going…