Who thought small was beautiful?

September’s release includes another range of important words (here are some of the key ones: after, base, believe, black, church, colour, conscience, frame, home, house, kirk, letter, literal, safe, secure, sign, sorrow, terror, value). Alongside the key words themselves, the full alphabetical range surrounding them has been revised and updated (e.g. from after all the way to after-witted, by way of aftercare, after-effect, aftermath, afternoon, aftershock, afterthought, afterwards, and also 100 other main entries starting with after-).

The criterion for selecting the key words is their productivity in modern English: most of these words have been in the forefront of language change over the past fifty years, despite the fact that some of them (such as house and home) seem on the surface to be solid, stable, and unchanging concepts. A moment’s reflection on, for example, home-shopping, homie, house music, and house-sitting should remind us that change happens at all levels of language.


What’s new since 1976?

I’ve had a look at these revised and updated entries (there are 1,546 of them), with a view to seeing which of them simply weren’t around at the start of the last quarter of the twentieth century – and so couldn’t realistically have been expected to appear in the OED of the day.

The neologisms fall into readily identifiable classes in this small slice of the dictionary. There are technological innovations: download (as a noun and as a verb, and downloadable) and email (as a noun and as a verb; also emailable, emailer, emailing, and emailed).

The entertainment (film and tv) industry contributes its share: homevid, letterboxing, Lettermanesque, and the music side of the industry helps out with house, housey, and househead.

Other cultural terms centre around drug-taking (base= freebase as a noun and verb, and basehead), with more domestic and educational concerns apparent in home-school (as a verb), home-schooler, home-zone (in the realm of traffic-calming), houseshare. Social disruption is signalled by the emergence of letter-bomb as a verb. Genetics leads the scientific phalanx, with homeobox and homeodomain, and the range also includes a specially selected group of new anthropological terms unknown before 1976 but now entrenched in scientific discourse: Afropithecus, Ardipithecus, Boxgrove, hominin, Kenyanthropus, Nariokotome, Orrorin, Sahelanthropus.

But these words shouldn’t be seen as isolates. They all continue lexical discussions we’d been having about language over the previous decades – especially in the area of civil liberties (in education, genetics, terrorism, etc.).

How do definitions keep up with technological change?

A good example of definition shift occurs with the OED’s treatment of the word email. As a noun this word first found its way into the OED in the Second Edition of 1989. At the time it was defined by a simple cross-reference to what was then felt to be the more significant term, electronic mail. Yes, that’s what people felt only twenty years ago as the use of email was gradually spreading.

This was the OED’s definition for email:

definition of email

which cross-referred to the equivalent meaning at electronic mail:

definition of electronic mail

Nowadays the situation is turned on its head. The main definition is at email rather than at the longer form:

OED email definition

It’s described as a system for sending data, pulling in the Internet as the principal medium; but the word has also expanded in its range of meanings. Now an email can be a message of the type sent by such a system, and also just an email address itself (‘I’ll send you my email’). And it will doubtless shift more in years to come – if it hasn’t already.

In addition, note that we don’t now simply cover the noun and verb email. At the noun there are already compounds: email account, email address, email attachment, email bomb, email list, and email message.

Audience viewing figures

From time to time an arithmetical cloud descends, and we look at OED Online statistics. This isn’t the place to dwell extensively on these, but several new figures are worth a second look.

Since the relaunch of the OED Online at the end of November 2010 the stats tell us that an astounding 89.7% of the OED’s entries have been consulted by users at least once. That’s 241,731 out of 269,447 main entries. The top of the list, showing those entries most frequently consulted, is not particularly instructive, as they mostly represent click-throughs from various Words of the Day – now generating renewed interest as they have become mysteriously topical on some days.

It is not surprising that words for significant concepts are consulted regularly. What is remarkable, and – for the lexicographers – pleasing – is that there is an enormously long trail of entries which are consulted from time to time, as and when people need them. This takes us right out of the realm of most-frequent words, down into the Old English yisel (a hostage), riqq (an Arabic musical instrument), orgeat (a cooling drink), merdeka (Malaysian/Indonesian independence, freedom), alongside just ‘ordinary’ words – torte (the sweet cake) and hypnosis.

Which are the hardest words to edit?

There could be a number of different ways to approach this question. Here’s a simple way: the more subsenses a word has, the more complex the entry will become.

And we can look at some more stats in illustration of this. The revised and updated entries in this new release (of which, as we have seen, there are 1,546) can be broken down into words which entered English right back in the Old English time (principally before the Norman Conquest), and words originating in the later periods of English (Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English). NB affix entries are not included in this analysis.

Now when we look at these, we find only eighty-four words from Old English in the newly revised material (5.5% of the 1,546 entries). But these eighty-four entries are in general so big that they contain 25.6% of the 44,000 illustrative quotations in the range (averaging 146.5 quotations per entry).

To continue the comparison, there are 228 entries originating in the Middle English period (15% of entries). These have only an average of 70.9 illustrative quotations per entry.

For the Early Modern period the equivalent figures are 31% of the entries and an average of 21.3 quotations per entry.

And for the Modern period (roughly post-1700) we find 48.5% of the entries and an average of 12.7 quotations per entry.

Entries like black, church, home, and house, dating from the Old English period, provide significant challenges for editors, but that the same time illustrate best the range of information on the changing language that the OED can describe.

Colour words: black – history and meaning

The largest set of entries of those updated here relate to the word black. It may appear just outside the top 100 most-frequently used words in English (in fact it ranks number 216 on the Oxford Corpus), but it covers a number of concepts that are particularly relevant today.

Black in the Old English period

The adjective black was one of the wave of core words to enter English from the Germanic dialects in the Anglo-Saxon period. In fact it seems that the West Germanic dialects preferred the word swart in its various forms (see our swarthy, for example). The OED says, of swart, that ‘while surviving as the regular colour-word in the Continental languages, it has been superseded in ordinary use in English by black’. From a quiet start, then, black has raced away. It’s a principal colour word in English (though technically it can be argued that it isn’t a colour at all, but an absence of colour). Its major meaning groups in English date from the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) period: with reference to colour (even the association with skin colour dates from this period) and its figurative connotation with evil and wickedness – the Prince of Darkness, etc.

Key words that date from the earliest period in English are often problematic for lexicographers, as we have seen. The words have expanded by numerous meaning shifts, compoundings, and other changes over the many centuries since they first made their appearance in English.

Early Modern developments in music, misfortune, and gloom

By Chaucer’s time, in the Middle English period, black had extended its figurative network to ‘calamitous’, but we can plot many more familiar changes in the Early Modern period from, say, 1500 to 1700. By 1504 black could describe the colour of music notes written on the page, and by 1664 it described those keys (on pre-piano keyboard instruments) which were not white.

By 1576 we start finding evidence for the formula which is so familiar today – qualifying days of the week. Black Saturday was the first, originally ‘(a name given to) 10 September 1547, the date of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, at which the Scottish army was heavily defeated by the English’. It’s often instructive to see how long after an event (such as the Gunpowder Plot or the Glorious Revolution or the Great Leap Forward) vocabulary used to describe it came into being. The evidence so far collected shows that the term Black Saturday postdates the event it explains by twenty-nine years; the Gunpowder Plot – in fact in the compound Gunpowder Treason – by only six years; the Glorious Revolution by twenty-eight years; and the Great Leap Forward was used in English in the same year as the events themselves.

The Early Modern period also saw the introduction of black in the sense ‘gloomy’ (of a state of mind) and (around 1652) with reference to black history, politics, and culture, rather than in purely descriptive uses of skin colour. We were starting to gain a modern perspective.

Modern meanings: the black economy, black ops, black comedy

If we skip to the twentieth century we find that the term was still on the move. There are the beginning of the black economy in 1922 (originally with reference to Russia), black military ops in 1945 (US wartime intelligence work). The early 1960s saw the emergence of black comedy (just later than the film noir).

Black stats

There are 215 entries in the revised and updated range from black to blacky, and those contain over one thousand subsenses. If we take a closer look, we can see that 67.4% of those subsenses in the Second Edition of the OED (1989) have now been provided with earlier attestations and a further 392 entirely new subsenses have been added within the black group.

The centenary edition of the Concise Oxford

Back in June 1911 Oxford University Press published the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, for the price of 3/6 (17½ pence). There was considerable excitement in the newspapers :

The possession of the Oxford Dictionary, which, in progress of publication in 64-page quarterly sections has but just reached the letter ‘T’, and the cost of which is $13 for each of its ten volumes, is a luxury which most private libraries must be denied. The greater, therefore, should be the satisfaction over the issue from the Clarendon Press of ‘The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English’ in a single compact and convenient volume of 1040 pages, at the astonishingly low price of one dollar… Altogether, this is a rare volume to be put at the service of readers at a merely nominal price.

The reader was pulled up short at the end of this dazzling encomium to find that it was written by “Oxford University Press, American Branch, 35 West 32d St., New York City” (cited in The Living Age (1911) 26 August p. 576/2).

The 12th centenary edition of the dictionary (now known as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary was published in August 2011. Learn more about this and Professor Lynda Mugglestone’s Dictionaries: a Very Short Introduction (also published by OUP in August 2011).

John Simpson Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary