Reading for the OED

By Alan Hartley, freelance researcher, OED

As a reader of historical and scholarly texts for the Oxford English Dictionary, I am always alert to materials that promise to yield quotations or other information useful to the editors. (I carry on my work for the OED and for Oxford’s U.S. Dictionaries Program from my small home-office in Duluth, at the western end of Lake Superior.) Such materials may be useful for revising pronunciation, etymology, or definitions, for extending or filling in the chronological range of examples in existing entries, or for drafting entirely new entries or senses. Especially productive are sources that document the expansion of English speakers into new lands or new forms of endeavour (for example, technological, political), and those, like letters and journals, that record the details of daily life in colloquial and unpretentious English.

The informal papers of the US ambassador and president Thomas Jefferson qualify under both criteria. His agricultural and architectural studies give us early examples of thrashing-machine and rafter-level, and his oenological pursuits enable us to antedate the nouns rouge and vin rouge in English from 1957 and 1917 to 1786 (please note that the examples in this article have yet to be reviewed by the OED editors). Jefferson also had experience of humbler vintages: ‘Mr. Ramsay got drunk with the sacrament wine going to Clairmont church.’ Jefferson thought energetically about many things over many years, and his vast vocabulary will have a significant place in the OED.

Lists of all sorts are productive. Among my recent readings are inventories of ship-rigging from Henry VII’s naval bureaucracy (antedating foremast from 1582 to 1485); Benjamin Franklin’s Drinker’s Dictionary, a treasury of hundreds of synonyms for ‘drunk’ (biggy, bewitched, bows’d, been at Barbados, burdocked, busky, buzzy); a catalogue of North American trees and shrubs by the eighteenth-century botanist John Bartram, hiding in a collection of the papers of Colonel Henry Bouquet (marah rose and mountain hazel are among names new to the OED). Bills of lading, packing-lists, appraisals of household goods for the probating of estates, and lists of arms and accoutrements, camping supplies, and Indian trade goods have all proven rich resources.

After consulting with my supervisor on the choice of a text, I begin the reading itself, a process which, after almost ten years, I still find difficult to explain. One learns to tell at a glance what parts of a document will be productive. In Franklin’s Papers, for example, one page on printing or on the physics of electricity will probably yield more than will ten pages on the politics of parliament or Pennsylvania, and an article in the Mariner’s Mirror on sea-stones and killicks in west Cornwall is a cinch. Reading (mine, at least) consists primarily of examining the text for promising candidates—the most obvious being compound words, italic font, and list items. One’s eye is drawn also to the initial capital letters that often flag nouns in early modern English, a form of discrimination that may contribute a little to the roughly six-fold preponderance of nouns over verbs in the OED. One’s ability to pick out productive words grows with experience and with knowledge of a subject, and each promising word demands a quick decision whether it is a good enough prospect to be taken to the next stage.

I then consult OED Online to determine whether the word or phrase is in the Dictionary: if it is not, I submit it as a ‘not-in’, and if it is, I decide whether its form or context is important enough to warrant its submission. If it does qualify, I enter the information into tagged fields in an electronic file that has been set up in a standard format. When I have finished the reading, I submit the file to Oxford or New York, where the records are incorporated into OED‘s working database for consideration by the editors, along with thousands of paper citation slips, as they proceed through the current revision. Yes, some of my finds are still submitted as paper slips—a reminder of OED‘s long heritage—but, electronic or paper, I can hardly imagine a better job.