Release notes: new features in OED Online

By Michael Proffitt, Chief Editor of OED

The December 2015 update of OED Online sees three major new features introduced to the site: audio pronunciations, word frequency marking, and short etymological summaries.

Although we augment and refresh the content of the dictionary with new and revised entries every three months, the functionality of the site has not changed for several years. These new features have been a long time in the making, and each in its own way seeks to fulfil a long-standing aim: to make the OED more useful and useable to its readers.

Audio Pronunciations

James Murray described pronunciation as ‘the actual living form or forms of a word, that is, the word itself, of which the current spelling is only a symbolization.’ In 1884, when he made that statement, the earliest devices for sound recording and reproduction had only just been engineered. Murray recognized their significance – later publishing an unusually detailed definition of Edison’s phonograph – but it has taken more than a century for audio technology to bring pronunciations to life in OED Online. This is partly because of the scale of the OED’s word list led us to contemplate several options (including speech synthesis) before deciding that only recordings of human speakers would provide the quality, refinement, and flexibility we sought. As yet, not all entries have audio files. Our recording continues, but in the spirit of OED’s Third Edition, we chose to make the work available as soon as possible. The OED’s Head of Pronunciations, Catherine Sangster, writes about the project here.

Word Frequency

Indicating word frequency in a historical dictionary is not a straightforward matter. OED has always labelled a proportion of its entries as rare, but this (as the sole indicator) has come to seem impressionistic in an era when statistical data is more readily available, if not always reliably or easily interpretable. What we have added to OED’s entry display is an interactive graphic indicating the relative frequency in modern English (1970 to the present day). Positioning your mouse over the graphic will display the frequency band; clicking on the graphic produces a pop-up with further information. In due course, we plan to present the historical picture, illustrating a word’s changing frequency over time. You can read about the data we have used, and the content of the frequency bands here.

Etymology Summaries

Word histories exert a fascination for a wide range of readers, and many of OED’s etymologies are rich and intricate with detail. However, for the more complex histories, the density of information can make it hard to discern readily the word’s developmental pattern or path. Providing a short introductory summary, which states a word’s origin in generic terms, seemed like a good way to convey the essential story clearly and simply, as a prelude to the full etymology. Philip Durkin, the OED’s Deputy Chief Editor and Principal Etymologist, explains the work here.

We would welcome your comments on these new features.