Auto-suggestion, gender politics, and the North-South divide

On looking into the June release from the OED

June 2011 marks a cumulative 98,000 revised and new entries published since the OED went online in March 2000, with a total of 100,000 in sight for the next quarterly release in September – if all goes well. Another possible milestone next time round: 300,000 revised and new senses (292,000 at present – and 31% of all the senses in the Dictionary).

The present release looks at a range of high-profile terms from across the disciplines. We complete the points of the compass: not a big stretch, as there are only four principal ones – but it is always of interest to see whether the documentary evidence leads us to structure related terms in similar ways – or whether there are subtle differences which we have to account for. In fact, the compass points share a similar (almost identical) structure. This cannot be said, for example, for the months of the year or the days of the week. Some of these are quiet as far as figurative uses are concerned (less tends to go on each Tuesday than on Fridays, and the profiles of February and June are quite different).

There are some big scientific terms here: ‘brain’, for instance, and all the ‘crystal-’ words. The ‘jet’ words take us across numerous semantic areas: in the Middle Ages the dominant sense is of the semi-precious form of lignite; by the late Middle Ages and into the 16th century we find the verb for swaggering or bragging (largely gone now); as the Early Modern period progresses, ‘jet’ comes to mean a jetty, and further  into the seventeenth and eighteenth century we see the beginnings of the meanings that helped to shape the twentieth century – a stream of ejected water, air, etc., and a device which produces this. The nineteenth century is dominated by uses of jet limping towards jet propulsion, and by the twentieth the jet set are jetting around the global village.

We are handling a higher proportion of scientific words today than we did a hundred years ago. Whilst the original OED had a 73/27% general/science split, nowadays we’re finding the figures balance out at about 69/31%.

The ‘auto-‘ words bridge the gap between scientific and non-scientific vocabulary. Some new early material on the ‘automobile’ means that it has now leapfrogged ‘motor car’ by one month (in 1895), to gain a temporary (?) lead in the race to be first. There are almost 425 headwords in the range newly revised which start with ‘auto-’, a little alphabetical microworld of its own, with its own a-z sequence running from ‘auto’ itself, and ‘auto-activate’, all the way to ‘autozoom’.

Other major entries just revised include ‘woman’, ‘gender’, ‘environment’, ‘green’, ‘urban’, ‘Irish’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, ‘baby’, the initial letter ‘A’ (with its abbreviations and initialisms), and ‘use’, and all of their related phrases, derivative, compounds, and surrounding entries. There are over 1840 newly revised and updated entries in all.

Investigating the new web site in a bit more detail: JET…

Now that the new web site has been available for a while, we can start to compare before-and-after graphs of entries that move through the revision process. Below, for example, are two graphs. The first one shows the chronological distribution of the 96 subsenses in the seven entries ‘jet’ in OED2, and the second shows the equivalent distribution for 112 subsenses of the eight ‘jet’ entries in the revised OED3.

Both graphs show that the first entry for the word ‘jet’ dates from the first half of the 14th century. The earlier graph, representing the unrevised ‘jet’ range, tends to show a more broken pattern of development (when one might perhaps expect a smoother incline). In fact, a short rise in the early 18th century is followed by an empty box for the late 18th century. The earlier graph rises to a peak in the late 19th century.

After revision the picture is smoother, with sub-peaks in the early 16th and early 17th centuries (when most of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is recorded in the OED), before rising to a peak as jet technology develops rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century. The reduction of numbers in the late 20th century is partly the result of the migration of subsenses to earlier sections of the graph, because of new evidence.

League tables for authors…

One of the features of the new web site is the list of the 1,000 authors and works most frequently cited in the dictionary. This tells us something about the authors/works, something about the language, and something about the dictionary.

For the purposes of comparison again, we can look at the top ten authors/works in March 2011 and in June 2011:

In March 2011 The Times led the way with 36,562 quotations, of which 1648 were the first evidence that the OED had for a word, and 7,462 were the first that the dictionary had for a specific subsense/compound.

The chart below shows that the picture has changed subtly over three months. The Times has been cited a further 410 times, but on only ten occasions does it represent the new first use for a term (and 56 times for a sense).

But Shakespeare is slipping. He is cited overall one more time, but his accredited first uses of a word are down by three and for a subsense also down by three. The picture is not in fact quite as clear as this, as any changes in the statistics mask a number of internal factors which are apparent on closer inspection.

Walter Scott – still number three in the list – has fourteen more quotations, but is down two on first recorded word uses and down eight on first recorded uses of senses/compounds.

All ten first-placed sources from March 2011 hold their place in June, but the older authors tend to lose ground, and the still-current periodicals tend to gain.

But what’s happening down in the lower divisions? The lists below shows the very bottom of the Top-1000 chart in March 2011 and then in June 2011. There is more activity at this level.

Last quarter:

The bottom three authors/works climb up the table a few places, and the Journal of Ecology (formerly at No. 990) leaps up to No. 975 in June – perhaps as a result of new material added in the ‘environment’ and ‘green’ revised entries. The others all fall up to four places.

The remaining sources appearing in the June 2011 listing show Henry Best (16th-century farm management) plummeting down from No. 968 in March to 990 in June, John Stainer (19th-century musicologist and composer) down from No. 989 to 992, and the appearance from further down the table at No. 1000 of the Journal of Philosophy.

We should note that some of these changes may be due to simple bibliographical emendations. However, there does seem to be an (expected) trend for minor historical authors to give way to current periodicals.

But what about language death – are words dying?…

These two lists show the number of OED senses coded in March 2011 and June 2011 under a number of categories. The ones of interest here are ‘historical’ and ‘rare’. Roughly speaking the increase of 403 in the ‘historical’ category indicates that a considerable number of subsenses which were previously not marked for obsolescence are now said to be obsolete. The rise of 834 in the number of subsenses marked ‘rare’ since the last release also shows that the documentary evidence has led editors to introduce the label ‘rare’ to a considerable number of the revised subsenses.

From 1968 to 2011

In 1968 the OED had – from the perspective of the general public and the academic community – remained quiescent since the completion of the First Edition and its original Supplement in 1933. Bob Burchfield and a small staff of editors were working on a new Supplement to the OED in the aftermath of the publication in 1961 of Webster’s Third International.

It was the appearance of Webster’s Third that convinced Bob Burchfield and others in Oxford that the OED Supplement needed specialist science editors. It’s difficult to understand now how they ever felt it might not.

But in 1968 Alan Hughes was appointed as a science editor on the OED, and he began gradually to build up the OED’s capacity to deal effectively with the scientific vocabulary of English.

Alan retired from the OED after over forty years as a member of the editorial staff in May 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Alan for his tireless work on behalf of the dictionary over almost half a century.


John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED