Rewriting the OED

Today’s OED offices in Oxford and New York are a hive of lexicographical activity. Over seventy editors work on updating the text of the dictionary for its Third Edition (2000-). Every three months the entire OED database is republished online, with new words added for the first time and older entries revised according the exacting standards of modern historical lexicography.

The Oxford English Dictionary is changing. In the first comprehensive revision undertaken since the original volumes were published between 1884 and 1928, every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed to improve the accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and the historical quotations.

Every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed

A staff of 120 scholars, research assistants, systems engineers, and project managers, plus approximately 200 specialist consultants and readers, have been working on this project since 1993, and since March 2000 the results of their editorial work have been published in quarterly instalments. This revision of the OED marks a new chapter in our understanding of the history and development of the English language.

Why revise?

The Dictionary has been updated before, but has never received such a thorough overhaul as that currently in hand. Previous updates have added new terms, but the text of the original volumes has not changed since they were published in 1928. In the intervening century more and better resources have become available to language scholars. New historical dictionaries cover different varieties of English, specific periods of the language’s development, and particular subject areas. A multitude of scholarly articles and books have been published that give a clearer understanding of the etymology of English, especially the history of words that have been borrowed from other languages. Countless other resources from both the distant and recent past are now helping scholars to refine and expand the Dictionary’s coverage of the formal, colloquial, slang, and dialect vocabulary of English since the twelfth century.

Through this productive but painstaking process today’s editors are creating a document that gives a more accurate representation of each word’s history and development, as well as a fuller chronological and geographical coverage of the English language. Work on the revision programme has already resulted in over one in every four definitions revised being augmented significantly with data on earlier usage.

Exciting discoveries along the way

Did Shakespeare and Chaucer really invent
as many words as they are given credit for?

The full-scale revision of the entire Dictionary is a fascinating process that will provide readers with many new insights into word meanings and the history of the English language. Why have some words fallen into disuse? Did the great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer really invent as many new words as they are given credit for, or does new information now show that many of these words have earlier, popular, origins? Which words have fallen out of use since the original Dictionary was published? These are just some of the questions readers can research as the revision proceeds.

Because the Dictionary is now held in an electronic format, revising has become a more regular and ongoing process. Once the huge task of updating the existing work is finished, the editors will continue to add new information to the Dictionary database as they receive it, instead of storing it away for the next print revision. Readers will be able to access an online version of the Dictionary, giving them the latest information on every word in the Dictionary as soon as it is inserted in the database. These technological advances, plus the enormous number of content revisions, ensure that the Oxford English Dictionary will be an even more authoritative record of the English language in the twenty-first century.

OED Online

While the Oxford English Dictionary revision programme is going ahead, we are simultaneously making revised and new entries from the programme available online alongside the online version of the Second Edition and its published Additions volumes.

A medium in which continuous
revision can take place

The World Wide Web is a natural medium for the publication of revised entries as work in progress, and gives us the ability to make them available to readers before the New Edition is completed. This concept of publication in instalments was familiar to Sir James Murray, whose original Dictionary was issued in fascicles; but the issuing of revised entries online will have the added advantage of offering a medium in which continuous revision can take place, i.e. no revised entry will be final, but can go through several publicly available versions as more antedatings are found and as more information enters our files.

The online Dictionary is now available on this site to subscribers, and we aim to release new batches of revised entries every quarter, linking them to the original versions for comparison. This is an entirely new product, a natural milestone in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, which will ensure its future as an ever-growing and developing record of the language.

There’s no mystery to the sequence of processes through which each word goes on its road to publication. But the editorial work done during each of these stages is complex: analytical, thoroughgoing, accurate, and with a weather eye on publication deadlines.

Below we describe in some detail the sequence of processes which an entry in the OED passes through on the road to revision, from the initial collection of material to the final sign-off for publication by the Chief and Deputy Chief Editor. Further pages list the editorial staff involved in the project, our invaluable network of consultants and advisers, and the mechanism by which you can contribute your own findings to the dictionary.

Today’s historical dictionaries are not monumental, static volumes, but dynamic texts which incorporate up-to-date information and respond rapidly to new information about the language as it comes to light. So how is the Third Edition of the OED being compiled? These are the principal steps in the editorial process:

  • collection and sorting of quotations for individual entries
  • editing of entries (by specialist new-words, scientific, and generalist editors), including the provision of British English and American English pronunciations (and others where necessary)
  • commissioning research on and specialist review of edited entries
  • preparation of etymologies (by the OED‘s Etymology group)
  • verification of bibliographical information for quotations to be published
  • final review by the Chief and Deputy Chief Editor
  • and, only then, publication

But even this is not the end of the story. Once an entry has been published, any of the dictionary’s readers may spot more information (such as an earlier attestation), which would improve an entry. So this material is filed in the editors’ ‘forward revision’ file, and—whenever possible—dealt with before the next online update.

Read on for more on each of the steps in the OED editorial process.