By Michael Proffitt, managing editor, OED

If the content of OED is now more extensive and diverse than that of previous editions, we could say the same of the dictionary’s readership. Usage statistics from the OED Online show that—as a rough average—every second of every day someone somewhere in the world is extracting an OED entry to read. We can record which entries are searched and viewed, and that in turn can help us prioritize our work in revising and updating the text. What impresses us most forcibly when we review the reports of OED Online usage is not so much the regularity with which certain prominent words are searched—and yes, as for any dictionary, the F-word invariably features—but rather the vast array of terms searched relatively infrequently. What distinguishes OED from other dictionaries—the sheer range of vocabulary, the depth of historical coverage—is both understood and exploited by its readers. That in turn enhances our own sense of editorial purpose in undertaking such a comprehensive revision of the text.

An old word with new life

We now routinely prioritize for immediate work many of the most frequently searched entries, as well as those exhibiting significant linguistic productivity in the twentieth century. In the latter category, we recently revised the entry for information. This is a word whose growth in the last 100 years both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change, yet it hasn’t always garnered much attention. The cultural theorist Raymond Williams doesn’t list information in his 1976 work, Keywords. R.S. Leghorn, the first recorded user of information age, while confident (and astute) about the wide social impact of information technology, was dismissive of the phrase he used to describe it:

1960     R.S. Leghorn in H.B. Maynard Top Managem. Handbk. xlvii. 1024 Present and anticipated spectacular informational achievements will usher in public recognition of the ‘information age’, probably under a more symbolic title.

Why? Well, information does lack the ancient heft of stone, iron or bronze, but what makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word which provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED‘s editors and readers. The search for definitive information is the principal aim in our experience of writing the dictionary, as it is yours in reading it.

The growing availability and abundance of information through print, broadcast, and then digital media is inevitably mirrored in the increasing use of the word. Its rising profile can be measured by counting and ranking the frequency of its appearances in searchable text corpora amassed over the past few decades. The Project Gutenberg corpus of mostly pre-1900 literature lists it as the 486th most frequent word; the 1967 Brown Corpus of contemporary American English places it 346th; and the 1997 British National Corpus lists it as 219th. A recent survey of online usage reported information as the 22nd most frequently used word. While these statistics need to be treated with some caution—neither the corpora themselves nor the analytical methods applied are strictly comparable—the impression they convey is accurate. This is an old word with a new lease of life. Its prolific growth is reflected in a revised OED entry twice the size of the original.

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The meaning of information

Information began life in English with a specific sense, borrowed from (Anglo-Norman) French: accusatory or incriminatory intelligence against a person. Excepting specific legal contexts, that’s no longer an active sense, though it survives as a dominant meaning of related terms like informant and informer. Ostensibly, information became a more neutral term, but it has always retained the sense of something that might be offered or exchanged to someone’s advantage. Perhaps because information is such a tradable commodity, as a word it also tends to form attachments freely, as shown by the greatly expanded array of compounds in the revised OED entry. The way in which a word combines with others can be highly revealing not just of its semantic reach (how its meanings grow and flourish) but of its wider cultural associations.

The earliest compound attested in OED (information office) dates from 1782. It first described a service for British colonists arriving in India, later a similar function to other groups of international emigrants and travellers. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, mass transit and communications began to take shape. Compounds arising in that period reflect information as a commodity with supply and demand: information-giving (dating from 1829), information-seeking (1869), information gathering (1893). They also tend to suggest relatively small-scale means of collection and distribution: information bureau (1869), information room (1874). In the last decades of the nineteenth century we begin to find terms which evoke some idea of professionalization: information agent (1871), information service (1885), information officer (1889), information work (1890), and information gatherer (1899). The abiding sense is that information can be collected, managed, marshalled, and disseminated. The means are formal but typically interpersonal: one person with the requisite expertise could find you what you need to know. Information is controllable and controlled; entrusted to some, who provide it for others.

The emergence of computer technology roughly coincides with the OED Supplement’s second round of work on information. Information technology itself was added in the 1976 Supplement volume with a first date of 1958, but now in OED3 it appears as a separate entry, with quotation evidence dating from 1952 (in a slightly different sense). The Supplement’s editors identified and included many of the earliest compounds evoking the sense of information as data, something to be stored, processed, or distributed electronically: information processing, information retrieval, information storage (all three dated from 1950). In quick succession came terms relating to the academic study of the phenomenon, appearing in a neatly logical sequence: first the idea (information theory, 1950), next its budding adherents (information scientist, 1953), then the established field of study (information science, 1955).

While those earlier coinages are generally suggestive of the beneficial or transformational power of electronic data, it is not long before the social consequences of the information age start to emerge. The need for skilled mediation emerges: information broker (1964), information architect (1966), information architecture (1969)—the more evolved hi-tech counterparts of information gatherer. There is an increasing sense—harking back to that very first meaning—of information being used to one’s benefit or another’s disadvantage: not merely controlled and managed, but deficient or adequate: information-rich (1959), information-poor (1970).

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Towards ‘fatigue’ and ‘overload’

Here at the OED, as work on the third edition progresses, we are nothing if not information-rich. The proliferation online of text archives, historical corpora, and searchable facsimiles has vastly enhanced the quantity and depth of linguistic data at our disposal for research. Where the dictionary’s original editors often struggled to find sufficient quotation evidence for common senses (volunteer readers tending naturally to alight on the exotic or unfamiliar), today’s historical lexicographers struggle to deal with the copiousness of evidence. Abundance is—well, abundant. The adverse psychological impact of the information age manifests itself linguistically, in information overload (1962) and in the entry for information fatigue (1991). Although those two last phrases are simply the latest additions to OED‘s coverage, for those engaged in any form of online research they could just as well describe the arc of a working day. Perhaps this is why the OED definition of information fatigue, while entirely accurate, also sounds faintly heartfelt:

Apathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information, esp. (in later use) stress induced by the attempt to assimilate excessive amounts of information from the media, the Internet, or at work.

In dictionaries, as elsewhere, a statement can be at once plainly factual and profoundly human.

‘Information is a distraction’, President Obama is reported to have said recently. He was commenting specifically on gadgetry’s power to divert us from higher purposes:

With iPods and iPads and XBoxes and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.

He would probably be dismayed to know there exists a visualized Hierarchy of Digital Distractions—email, text messages, social media, etc.—at David McAndless’ Information is Beautiful. The fact that the President was widely misquoted (or his words decontexualized) perhaps only served to underline the broader point he sought to make: that in an age in which each of us is assailed on all sides with unfiltered information, identifying the reliable sources becomes at once harder and more important. Perhaps that’s where the OED can help.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. The revised entry for information appears as part of the December 2010 update of OED3. Updates are published four times a year, with details of recent additions available. December’s update also includes digital, the subject of another OED Word Story.
  2. With the Historical Thesaurus of the OED you can trace the development of synonyms for the original meaning of information—‘the action of imparting accusatory or incriminatory intelligence against a person’—from peaching to whistle-blowing.
  3. The decade that gave us information overload also saw the first recorded use of answerphone (1963), vox pop (1966), and pager (1968).

How do I search for this? With subscriber access, use the Historical Thesaurus to trace how objects, actions, and concepts have been described over time. Or use Advanced search to find words by subject and date: here choose Browse subject (and select ‘Telecommunications’ under ‘Technology’) along with the range, 1960-1970.

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