About the OED Appeals

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What are the ‘OED Appeals’?

The Appeals are a new part of the Oxford English Dictionary website where OED editors ask for your help in uncovering the history of particular words and phrases. Each appeal is an invitation to assist OED editors in finding the earliest recorded date (or some other key aspect) of a word, to provide an accurate picture of when it made its first appearance in English.

Is this the first time the OED has appealed to the public for help?

The OED has welcomed contributions from the general public since the project’s very beginnings over 150 years ago. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of volunteers contributed evidence which came to form the core material of the first edition of the dictionary. In 1879, the dictionary’s first editor, James Murray, began the tradition of publicizing ‘desiderata’ lists of words for which additional evidence was especially wanted. This tradition continued through the twentieth century, and into the last decade, when the OED joined forces with the BBC to invite television viewers to participate in an effort to discover earlier examples of words and phrases in the OED Wordhunt and associated television series, Balderdash & Piffle. The online Appeals continue the OED’s long tradition of collaborating with the public.

Can just anyone submit evidence to the OED?

Anyone can submit evidence to the OED, but our team of lexicographers examine all suggestions and documents submitted to us very carefully, to make sure that they are genuinely acceptable.

What do you mean by ‘evidence of a word’s usage’?

Evidence can be any verifiable record of a word being used. For example, the first written example in the OED entry for the word easy-peasy comes from the Evening Standard newspaper in 1976:

But it is very likely that there is an earlier record somewhere. Perhaps you have seen the word in a favourite old comic book from 1974. That would provide proof that the word was used before the date we have in the OED, and we would update our entry to reflect this.

Much of the evidence in the OED is from printed sources like newspapers, magazines, and books, but there are also manuscripts, personal letters, television and radio transcripts, film scripts, and diaries. Any evidence which has a documented, verifiable date is fair game.

A submission of evidence should always include

  • date of publication;
  • author (of a book, but not a newspaper or journal article);
  • title of the work, with chapter and page reference;
  • a quotation long enough to show how the word is being used.

Why do you need evidence?

We need evidence to create the most accurate record of the English language we can. The OED is a unique historical dictionary which contains over 3 million real-life quotations tracing the history of each word through time. By documenting our evidence in OED entries, we also make it possible for others to find the same sources and review our work, an important part of any academic undertaking.

Do you accept electronic evidence?

The OED accepts any evidence which has a documented, verifiable date. Many of the OED’s first examples of computer terminology and Internet jargon come from the Usenet archives, which are searchable on Google Groups. These are acceptable because the dating information is reliable. Ordinary websites can also be considered as evidence: we take the date that the site is accessed and add this in hard copy form to the OED Archive.

Do you accept audio recordings as evidence?

Audio recordings are acceptable evidence provided that we can verify the date of the recording and the interpretation of the content; the same applies to videos. For example, the earliest example of bada-bing comes from an audio recording of a comedy routine from 1965. Similarly, one of the pieces of evidence submitted by viewers of Balderdash & Piffle was the discovery of an earlier example of something for the weekend (‘a condom’) in a 1972 Monty Python comedy record.

How do I submit evidence to the OED?

For words that are part of the OED Appeals programme, you can visit the OED Appeals page, find your word, and tell us about your evidence in the comments. We’ll then get in touch via the site to let you know if we can use it or not.

For information on giving evidence for words not in the Appeals and other types of contributions, please read this section on contributing to the OED.

Will you use the evidence I’ve sent you?

We can’t guarantee that any specific piece of evidence will be used. The OED endeavours to show the earliest example of each word and sense, so the earliest verifiable and accurate quotation submitted for each appeal should in due course be published in the OED.

If I can see by the comments that someone else has already found earlier evidence for a word’s usage, should I still send you mine?

Yes, please! We need to go through a rigorous process of verifying all the submissions, and yours might just turn out to be the only genuine one. In addition, if there is a large gap between submissions, it’s useful to have dates that fill chronological gaps in the evidence we already have, to show how a word was used over time.

How do I find evidence?

There are two major ways to find evidence for the OED. The first is through searching in online archives. When researching the history of words, OED editors examine a variety of online databases as well as the OED’s own files. We do our best to scour the readily available resources, but new documents are being added to databases like Google Books all the time, so it’s worth trying them, as well as more obscure online archives. Some of the items we are researching are very difficult to search for, so a novel strategy may yield results.

The second way to find evidence for the OED, and the one where we are most reliant on submissions from the public, is in physical documents, such as books, magazines, and manuscripts which have never been digitized. Did you inherit a collection of old cookbooks? You might have the earliest evidence for a culinary term on your bookshelf.  Did you save all of the copies of your favourite 1990s music fanzine? You may be able to help us pin down the real origin of a word for a musical genre.  Were you an early computer user? You may be able to help us track the vocabulary of technology in the user manual of your first PC.

Do you accept evidence from Google Books?

Yes, we do. Google Books is an excellent, freely available resource for researching the history of how words are used. However, please be aware that not all dates given in Google Books are accurate. Texts, especially periodicals, which are visible only in ‘snippet’ view are particularly problematic, and often are listed with inaccurate early dates.  It is a good idea to confirm the date of a text on the copyright page if it is available, and in the catalogue of a reputable library.

When will my contribution be published in the OED?

The OED is updated each March, June, September, and December with new and revised entries. If you submit earlier evidence of a word, it will be acknowledged on Appeals website as soon as we are able to verify it, and appear in the online OED as soon as our publication schedule allows.

Will you acknowledge my contribution in the OED? Will I be named as the contributor?

If you wish to be named as the contributor of a piece of evidence, you can submit your evidence in the comments using your Facebook or Twitter account or your full name. The Appeals website will acknowledge those who have submitted usable and verifiable evidence. However, the OED entry itself will not mention who submitted any particular quotation.

How can I find out which words you need help with?

You can check the Appeals home page frequently, subscribe by RSS feed to be alerted of new Appeals, or follow the OED on Twitter for the latest news.

Can I submit new words to the OED?

The OED has always accepted suggestions of new words and senses: please see this section on contributing to the OED.

Can I submit evidence for words that aren’t listed in the Appeals?

Yes. The OED has always welcomed submissions of earlier evidence from its readers: if you have evidence for a word which isn’t listed in the Appeals, please see this section on contributing to the OED.

What is an ‘antedating’?

Antedating is the technical lexicographical term for an earlier example of a word or sense. A postdating is a later example of a word or sense. An interdating is an example that fills a chronological gap in the quotation evidence.