The OED and its cousins

By Edmund Weiner, Principal Philologist, OED

People quite often ask whether there are dictionaries like the OED for other languages. There certainly are. Dictionaries akin to the OED exist for several major world languages, and varieties of English itself are also enshrined in specialist dictionaries.

The OED, in fact, is a member – arguably the foremost member – of a distinguished genre, the historical dictionary. Historical Dictionaries trace the story of each word through all its different meanings, uses, and constructions, from its earliest known appearance onwards. They illustrate each meaning with a set of dated examples, again from the earliest found to the latest or one of the most recent, and give in some detail the background of each word before it appeared in the language and the written and spoken forms it has had through its history.

There are two subgenres: the regional dictionary and the period dictionary. English is well supplied with both. Examples of the former are the Dictionary of Canadianisms, the Australian National Dictionary, and the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles: these cover the language specific to a region, and exclude the general vocabulary. Examples of the latter are the Middle English Dictionary, now nearing completion after three quarters of a century, and the Dictionary of Old English; these cover the two periods of English preceding modern English (circa 1500 onwards).

The Scots language has dictionaries which combine both attributes: the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (founded by one of the original OED editors, William Craigie, in 1931, and due for completion in the near future) and the Scottish National Dictionary (finished in 1976), whose line of demarcation is at 1700. There are a number of dictionaries of medieval Latin in progress in different countries; another Oxford-based project is the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. Medieval periods of major languages, such as French and (High) German, also have their own dictionaries.

Inevitably because of their breadth and depth of coverage, historical dictionaries take much longer to compile than ordinary desk or collegiate dictionaries. The First Edition of the OED had a 45-year publishing history, while its total period of compilation was over 70 years; figures for its two Supplements are 15 and 29. One of the fastest projects was the very authoritative Trésor de la Langue Française, which took only 24 years to publish and 34 to compile, even though its text is about 30 million words. The Deutsches Wörterbuch, initiated by the brothers Grimm of fairy-tale fame, took 101 years to publish and the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal took 135. Many others are still in progress; for example the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru at the University of Wales, begun in 1921 and now into the letter T. Such projects are a challenge to manage and fund and staff size (and hence publishing progress) can vary greatly from one project to another.

The OED is in the unusual position of now undergoing a complete revision and updating. It has had the great good fortune that each stage – First Edition, Supplement, Second Edition, and online publication of the revised edition – has been rapid when compared to some of its cousins. The project is favoured by having so many regional and period dictionaries to draw on, so that the full geographical and historical scope of the language can be more easily covered. It was the first to be published electronically (CD-ROM and now online), though not the first to move its editorial processes to computer. And it enjoys the advantage of having been compiled according to principles and styles that have remained relatively consistent and have not required major rethinking. But this is not to exclude the possibility that its shape may need to evolve to meet the requirements of 21st century users!