December 2008 update: revision notes

December 2008 update: revision notes

In October the OED held a series of seminars and talks in Oxford and elsewhere to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the completion of the first edition of the dictionary in 1928. With this December’s release of new and revised material we’ve passed another milestone, with a quarter of the third edition now published.

The present release contains revised material in the range ran (a regional term for particular width of net, or of twine) to reamy (creamy, frothy). The entries at the beginning and end of these ranges are often for fairly inconsequential words. In this case OED1/2 had little to say about ran: it was able to present a couple of quotations for the ‘twine’ sense (1794, 1880) and only one for the ‘net’ sense (1887). But readers and editors have been busy collecting more material for the term over the last hundred years, and we’re now able to show the ‘net’ sense in an unpublished document from the south-coast town of Brighton from 1580, and to bring the coverage up to the present day. The etymology (previously one of those with the slightly embarrassed text ‘of unknown origin’) now posits a relationship with rand (a strip of land, meat, leather, etc.).

Reamy (with quotations from 1831 and 1868 in OED1/2) seems to have attracted less scholarly and general attention since the OED‘s original entry was published in 1904. Two later quotations show that it was still known in 1877 and later in Banffshire in 1922, but otherwise things have been quite quiet on the reamy front. But switch to ream (= cream), and again you find numerous changes updating the word’s coverage from the Old English period.

The range of newly revised entries does, however, include a large number of significant terms in English:

ranch rancid random range rank rankle ransack ransom rant rap rape rapid rapture rare rascal rash rat ratchet rate rather rating ratio ration rational rationalize rattle ravage rave raven raw ray razor reach react reaction read ready real reality realize really realm.

What that list, extracted from all of the entries in the range, fails to show is that the range includes the monumental prefix re- (69 screensworth of material on the OED‘s editorial computer system). The revised entry begins with a description of the various ways in which the prefix was used in Latin and the Romance languages, before continuing with an analysis of its various usages in English, whether the vowel is likely to be long or short, and how the stress may fall on re- words. After that, the bulk of the entry is taken up with subentries for around 300 words beginning with re- (the ones that did not merit full main-entry status).

Elsewhere in the batch I think I’d start by reading through reality, to see evidence from 1513 for a word previously recorded from 1550, and also to see how television has affected an entry which was formerly remarkable principally for the complexity of its meanings. Television also features in the revised entry for ray (noun five), but this time in a much more scientific context (the cathode-ray tube). In fact ray illustrates well how the revised dictionary treats words with major scientific senses from optics, mathematics, and botany. And in this case the word has also developed in the more popular arena (little ray of sunshine, to soak up the rays, and in science fiction – ray gun).

After reality, there is a choice of routes: those with a grammatical/syntactic bent might turn to rather and really; other interest groups are catered for at rat, reading, ration, rational, random, and in many other places.

At the quarter point in its revision, the OED currently contains 263,917 entries (741,153 meanings), illustrated by 2,931,547 quotations.