Editing of entries

There are two principal modes of editing on the OED. The first is editing from scratch – that is, editing a word or sense that is entirely new to the dictionary; the second is revising and updating an existing dictionary entry. In general the editorial process followed by New Words and Revision editors is similar, the principal difference being that Revision editors start with text from an earlier edition of the dictionary, and New words editors start with a collection of quotations and other references to a particular word or meaning.

Why is the OED being revised?

The original OED was published between 1884 and 1928. New words and new meanings of old words have been added to the dictionary since then, but the basic text of the dictionary remained unchanged. Smaller Oxford dictionaries have, of course, been updated regularly, but it was only with the computerization of the text of the dictionary in the 1980s that revising the OED became a practical possibility.

Over the same period the English language has continued to change and adapt: geographical varieties of English, for example, are much more established than they were when the OED was first compiled; enormous social changes have altered how we speak. Similarly, many new discoveries about the language have been made by scholars and others over this period. All of this feeds into the revised text of the OED.

How is an OED entry compiled?

The principal components of an OED dictionary entry are the spelling, etymology, pronunciation, illustrative quotations, and definition(s). Once the basic components are in place, the editor will need to give the whole entry an overview, to ensure that the various parts satisfactorily demonstrate the term’s history and development in English. Not all of the processes will necessarily be appropriate for any given word.

How is a word spelled (or spelt)?

The editor will review evidence for the modern spellings of a term (including capitalization, hyphenation, regional variation) before deciding on the form or forms which should appear as the main spelling of the headword.

In addition to this, all other available spellings of the term over history are reviewed and listed by century (and sometimes also by region, etc.).

So although piazza is chosen as the principal spelling, it is important to show (and if necessary explain) spelling forms that have been found in English over history.

From the list of variant spellings it is possible to see that the modern form piazza dates right back to the 1500s, when the word was borrowed into English from the Italian piazza. But as the centuries passed, numerous by-forms arose as the spelling started to follow variant pronunciations in Scotland and in America.

Etymology: on the origins of words

If the etymology of a word appears straightforward, then this part of the entry can be written by the regular Revision or New words editor. Particularly simple etymologies are those for words formed in English from existing English elements.

Examples of new words formed within English are:

computer game, from computer + game


world-like, from world + like

However, even apparently simple etymologies can in fact require considerably more work, by specialist etymologists, before they are right. And so all etymologies are reviewed by the OED‘s etymological editors before they are published. Of the various sources for words, the three most important are borrowing, blending, and invention.


Foreign languages are still a common source of new words, which are borrowed for various reasons, for example:

  • as the name of a food or dish originating in the region where the language is spoken (e.g. bhaji, tzatziki)
  • to describe a cultural or political concept originating in or unique to that region (e.g. feng shui, Knesset, glasnost)
  • as the name of an animal or plant found in that region (e.g. kiwi, aardvark, jojoba)


Another way in which new words enter the language is by blending two or more existing words, or parts of words. The etymologies of such words note the original words which have been blended, and sometimes other words which have either been formed in the same way or which the new word is intended to resemble. Examples of such words include digerati (from digital and literati), affluenza (from affluent and influenza), chocoholic (from chocolate and alcoholic) and Trustafarian (from trust (trust-fund) and Rastafarian).

Science words

Scientific terms are frequently coined specifically for the purpose of describing a new discovery, invention, or concept. In writing the etymology of such terms, the OED‘s aim is to trace the coinage where possible, usually by following references in the scientific literature. Further research is also necessary, to find out why the word took the form it did: a new mineral may be named after the place where it was found (e.g. bauxite, from Les Baux in south-east France); a drug may be named by combining elements of the words which describe its molecule (e.g. diazepam, from benzodiazepine and amide); a biological structure may be given a name based on Latin or Greek words describing its function or appearance (e.g. mastigoneme, a hair-like structure taking its name from the ancient Greek words for whip and thread). Sometimes, a word may simply have been made up (e.g. nylon), and the OED needs to record if this may have been the case.

For another example see the OED entry for magenta, named after the northern Italian town near where Napoleon III defeated the Austrians in 1859, shortly before the dye was discovered.

Etymology is sometimes thought of as the science of tracing a word’s history back to its ‘origin’, which might be within English, or in another language or languages before it arrived in English. But the OED‘s interest in the prehistory of a word is largely in order to explain aspects of its use in English (when did a particular nuance of meaning evolve; how many other contemporary languages share a form of the word, and why? is the developmental course of the word regular – or at least comparable with that of other words?).

In order to be able to answer questions like these, the OED‘s etymologists take a grand survey of existing records of and writing about each word, and summarize this with particular reference to the period at which the word entered English.

Sometimes the results of this work may appear complex, but then language isn’t always simple – and we can’t understand the network of today’s language without a sense of how it developed to its present state. We understand more about climate, for example, by consulting the etymology for the word than we would by restricting ourselves to the definitions.

Pronunciation: the sounds of English

Editors are responsible for adding or updating the information which the OED provides on the pronunciation of individual terms.

Whereas the First and Second Editions of the dictionary simply offered a modern British English pronunciation, the Third Edition offers British and American English pronunciations, along with pronunciations from other varieties of English when they are relevant for particular terms. For example:

Pronunciations are not given for obsolete words. If the pronunciation history of a word needs discussion, then this will be found within the word’s etymology.

Take, for example, the case of restaurant

The pronunciation of a word is not normally apparent from the documentary evidence on which OED definitions are largely based (though sometimes these do provide observations or other contextual information). As a result, editors frequently consult secondary sources for specialist information on pronunciation. More information on the pronunciations given in the OED can be found in the key to pronunciation.

The OED‘s pronunciations are presented in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The version of this used in revised and new entries is based on that of the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English (2001: Upton, Kretzschmar, Konopka).

Illustrative quotations

Each OED entry presents quotations from any of a wide range of sources, to illustrate the uses being defined.

Example: genetic adj. sense 1b:

The first quotation in any block of illustrative quotations is always the earliest example that was available to editors when the entry was prepared.

Subsequent quotations are chosen for a number of reasons, which include demonstrating:

  • the period of time over which the meaning is evidenced (and if relevant when it fell out of use)
  • the geographical spread of the term
  • the types of sources (genre, etc.) in which it occurs
  • typical registers of use

It is not always possible to show every aspect of these features in the quotation paragraphs. The intention is to give an idea of the extent of use, not to document it comprehensively. This information supplements that given in the definition and by way of subject, usage, and other labels.

The latest quotation dates from the modern period, or the period at which a use is seen to fall into disuse and the typical format of a quotation is:

  • date of first publication, author’s name, short-title of work, date of publication of edition used, location in text (often chapter and page), quotation text (original spelling).

Example of simple quotation cited at major adj.:

The complexities of bibliographical style mean that there is ample scope for varying from this basic style.

Quotations are preferably taken from the first edition of the work cited, though there are sometimes reasons for citing other editions.

It is often noted that the quotations can help to ‘explain’ a definition, and this is particularly noticeable in the case of verbs. The accompanying quotations often help the user distinguish, for example, between subtle syntactic differences between senses.

Reading the quotations helps to disambiguate senses 3 and 4 at marvel v.1:




Definitions: explaining meaning

This is the stage of the editorial process at which the definition is written (or revised) and a selection of illustrative quotations are chosen to accompany the definition.

The definition should be written in such a way that it reflects the usage exemplified by the available quotations. However, the editor must first identify which aspects of the term are significant to form part of the definition. Many inconsequential (or less significant) attributes of a word may be omitted from the final definition.

Here, for example, are several attributes of different books which may be mentioned in the quotations:

  • placed on a windowsill
  • has a red cover
  • contains text to be read
  • consists of pages
  • will take a long time to read
  • contains pictures

But not all of these attributes of particular books are important or generic enough to be included in the definition.

Definitions themselves should have characteristic attributes. They should (as far as possible):

  • be written concisely and elegantly
  • be unambiguous in meaning
  • describe the key features of the term defined
  • contain as little technical vocabulary as possible
  • help the reader understand the use of the word in context
  • use formal but modern language, and avoid informal and slang phraseology
  • relegate important secondary information (if needed) to an accompanying note

The definition of bicycle in the First Edition of the OED (which was published in 1888) meets most of these criteria, but it would fail as a modern definition on several counts.

“A machine for rapid riding, consisting of a saddle-seat surmounting two wheels, to which the rider communicates motion by means of treadles; a two-wheeled velocipede.”

By contrast, this modern redefinition of one of the subsenses of myth does meet all of these criteria:

“A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing”.

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