Researching the language

Today’s editors have access to a remarkable amount of information from many different sources. An important part of an editor’s job is to know where to look most efficiently for information relevant to the entries they are editing.

These are the main sources of information available to editors:

  • the OED‘s own library, card files, and word databases
  • libraries and archives (especially the large copyright libraries)
  • external online databases and web sites (some subscriber-only)
  • academic consultants

Resources at the OED

The OED department at Oxford University Press has its own specialist library, which editors use when researching the history and definition of a word.

The OED has collected information on the history of words for the last 150 years. The index cards or ‘slips’ on which this information is collected are stored in the dictionary department in Oxford (and in the nearby archives of the University Press) and are available to editors working on their ranges of words.

In recent years most of the information collected by the OED through its reading programmes has been collected and stored electronically. The most important collection (‘Incoming’) is available to editors on their pc, who search it regularly for additional details.

This database contains over three million quotations (almost 100 million words) from the main UK and North American Reading Programmes maintained by the OED. The advantage of this database over the traditional method of writing out a quotation on a slip of paper and filing it alphabetically is that any word from a quotation can be matched by a search, not just the ‘catchword’ that caught the original reader’s attention.

This allows the reading programmes to concentrate on highlighting new or unusual words and meanings, since the quotations for these words will also contain a number of common words, which are just as easy to find by electronic searching.

Searches on this database can also be restricted to a particular date range, subject, or location, which can be useful when trying to trace an example of a common word with a specific meaning in.

Researching in libraries

OED editors often need to access the resources of a larger library. In such cases the editor sends a message to a researcher working for the OED at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Library in London, the Library of Congress in Washington, or any of several other libraries.

The main tasks of a researcher working in these libraries are as follows:

  • to find extra information needed for the definition of a word.
  • to search for the earliest evidence of a word in use, so that the editor can determine as closely as possible when a word entered the language. In some cases, such as scientific terminology, it is often possible to determine exactly when a word was coined, by tracing references in the scientific literature.
  • to search for recent evidence of a word, so that the editor can determine whether or not a word has dropped out of use.
  • to check in an original text a word that has appeared in a later edition, an abstract, etc.
  • to ascertain whether a word is registered as a trade mark, so that the dictionary can record this fact in the definition, if necessary.

Over the last few years there has been an explosion in the number of resources available to lexicographers on the Internet. Of particular interest to OED lexicographers are large full-text historical databases such as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). The British Library has made available significant runs of British regional newspapers up until 1900; PROQUEST makes available a large number of newspaper sources from the United States of America, which can be supplemented at a regional level by the Newspaperarchive.

Most of these sources are available by subscription only. The emergence of Google Books, however, means that a mass of historical and contemporary material can be searched easily and, from the OED‘s point of view, extremely usefully.

For the editor, the issue is how to search most efficiently through such a mass of data.

Further advice

Once an entry has reached the stage at which it is almost publishable, it can be sent by the OED to any of hundreds of specialist consultants who advise of the final versions of entries from their areas of expertise. So words from astronomy, mineralogy, sports, heraldry, dance, etc. make one final tour before they return to be passed for publication online.

The OED‘s specialist consultants number over 400. Responding to enquiries from OED editors constitutes only a small part of their life, but they help to ensure the accuracy and completeness of entries that have made their way through the editorial process.

Bibliographical standardization