December 2009 update: revision notes

December 2009 update: revision notes

OED publication range No 40 (refundreputeless) is set right in the middle of the re- series of words. On the face of it, this may seem a reasonably easy batch of terms to revise and update: many simply involve doing something again (rekey, relearn, remarry, etc.). In fact, the prefix re- is more complicated than this. The main entry for re- (already published) indicates the various semantic implications of the prefix:

‘denoting that the action itself is performed a second time, and sometimes that its result is to reverse a previous action or process, or to restore a previous state of things’.

So the prefix offers several potential meanings for each term, each of which has to be investigated against the lexical evidence.

But the surprise for those not familiar with the twists and turns of the alphabet is that a large number of these apparently simple terms turn out to be complex major words in their own right.

This section of the quarterly publication notes normally contains a listing of the major terms revised in the previous quarter. The list is often quite extensive. But this quarter the editorial staff of the dictionary have found themselves particularly busy, given the complexity of many of these words from an area of the alphabet which seemed to offer plain sailing:

refund, refuse, refute, regal, regard, regatta, regency, regenerate, regenerate, regent, reggae, regime, regimen, regiment, regimental, region, register, registrar, registration, registry, regress, regression, regressive, regret, regroup, regular, regulate, regulation, regurgitate, rehabilitate, rehash, rehearsal, rehearse, rehouse, Reich, reign, reimburse, reimport, reimpose, rein, reincarnation, reincorporate

reindeer, reinfect, reinforce, reinforcement, reinsert, reinstate, reinsure, reintegrate, reinterpret, reintroduce, reinvent, reinvigorate, reissue, reiterate, reject, rejig, rejoice, rejoin, rejoinder, rejuvenate, rekey, relabel, relapse, relate, relation, relational, relative, relativity, relaunch, relax, relaxation, relay, relearn, release, relegate, relent, relentless, relevant, reliable, reliance, relic, relict, relief

relieve, religion, religious, relinquish, relish, relive, reload, relocate, reluctant, rely, remain, remainder, remake, remand, remark, remarkable, remarry, remaster, REME, remedial, remedy, remember, remembrance, remind, reminder, reminisce, reminiscence, reminiscent, remission, remit, remittance, remix, remnant, remodel, remonstrance, remonstrate, remorse, remorseful

remorseless, remortgage, remote, remount, removal, remove, remunerate, Renaissance, renal, rename, renationalize, rend, render, rendering, rendezvous, rendition, renegade, renege, renegotiate, renew, rennet, renounce, renown, rent, rental, renumber, renunciation, reoccur, reoffend, reorder, reorganize, reorient, reorientate, rep, repack, repackage, repaginate, repaint, repair, reparation

repartee, repast, repatriate, repay, repeal, repeat, repeater, repêchage, repel, repellent, repent, repercussion, repertoire, repertory, repetition, repetitious, repetitive, rephrase, repine, replace, replacement, replan, replant, replay, replenish, replate, replica, replicate, replication, reply, repoint, repopulate, report, reportage, reporter, repose, repository, repossess, reprehensible

represent, representation, representational, representative, repress, repressive, reprice, repressor, reprieve, reprimand, reprint, reprisal, reprise, repro, reproach, reproachful, reprobate, reprocess, reproduce, reproduction, reprogramme, reprographics, reproof, reprove, reptile, republic, republican, republish, repudiate, repulse, repulsive, repurchase, reputable, reputation, repute

Lists of words are not particularly readable. The entries themselves are much more alive. Take reptile (the noun). OED1 states that the word entered English from the Bible (Vulgate version), and is first recorded in English in the works of John Gower in the 1390s. It illustrates reptile‘s use with examples drawn from Milton, Pope, and Goldsmith, and James Dwight Dana, the celebrated American geologist. The revised entry similarly traces the English word back to the Vulgate, but also shows the spread of contemporaneous cognate forms in France (Old French 13th century; Middle French 1314). OED1 countenanced a British English pronunciation rhyming with septal; OED3 only finds this pronunciation today in North America. OED3 expands the types of sources in which reptile is cited, including the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1825), Life magazine (1937), and the Ecologist (2006). While OED1 defined reptile as ‘an animal belonging to the class Reptilia’ (which in turn it defined as ‘that class of vertebrate animals which includes the snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles and tortoises’), OED3 prefers ‘an animal of the vertebrate class Reptilia, the members of which are characterized by having a dry impervious skin covered in horny scales’, and provides a more discursive encyclopedic note:

The four orders of living reptiles comprise the snakes and lizards (Squamata), the turtles and tortoises (Testudines or Chelonia), the crocodilians (Crocodylia), and the tuataras (Rhynchocephalia). Among several extinct groups of reptiles which dominated life in the Mesozoic era are the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and therapsids.
Living reptiles are all poikilothermic (cold-blooded). They are air-breathing and lack a gill-bearing larval phase, usually developing from soft-shelled amniote eggs laid on land (though ovovivipary is quite common). From a cladistic point of view the reptiles are a grade of vertebrates rather than a clade (see note at Reptilia n.).

By the 18th century OED1 was faced with the less savoury meaning of reptile: ‘A person of a low, mean, grovelling, or repulsive character’. It cites this from Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, William Cobbett, Harriet Martineau, and P. G. Wodehouse. OED3 takes this meaning (now ‘A person of mean, grovelling, or contemptible character; a loathsome or repulsive person’) back from 1749 to 1697, and again broadens the array of cited sources by introducing the translator of the 1697 Spanish letters, the Saturday Review (1883), the Titusville Herald (Pennsylvania, 1925), and the Sydney Morning Herald (1990).

The verb to repaper was active in the mid 19th century. OED1 (fortified by the 1982 volume of the Supplement to the OED) identifies its meaning as ‘to paper (a room, etc.) again’, and include this transitive sense – and an early intransitive use from Elizabeth Gaskell – in its brief quotation paragraph running from 1854 to Len Deighton in 1974.

OED3 shows that to repaper was actually active fifty years earlier. A new first sense (‘to wrap or cover in paper again’), again transitive, enjoyed a brief spell of popularity from 1785 (where it is first recorded in John Wright’s long-forgotten Address to the members of both houses of Parliament on the late tax laid on fustian, and other cotton goods) until the late 19th century. By 1824 a new meaning was entering the language, as ordinary people took to decorating their walls with paper (‘to apply new wallpaper to (a room, wall, etc.)’). By 1842 the equivalent intransitive use is found in Ainsworth’s Magazine, with the noun re-papering coming along four years later.

While householders were getting to grips with wallpaper in the early 19th century, physicists were struggling with relativity. Although the theories referred to today date from the early twentieth century, the word was used earlier in similar contexts (1858: ‘motion implies relativity of either place or time, both of which are incompatible with eternity’). The current definition elaborates that of the Supplement to the OED in 1982 (now ‘the quantitative dependence of observations on the relative motion of an observer and an observed object, esp. as regards the nature and behaviour of light, space, time, and gravity; the branch of physics concerned with this, which arose out of the work of Albert Einstein (see the note following)’, and invites the reader to explore the subject more deeply into the small-type notes accompanying the entry.


It’s almost ten years since the OED went online on 14 March 2000 with its first range of revised and updated entries: the 1067 entries making up Mmahurat. In retrospect, it is surprising to see how much those early entries have changed since they were first published. Many have just altered in small ways as bibliographical details have been updated as part of the project’s general background revision of the database. But almost 15% of those first 1,000 entries in the letter M have changed more substantially.

Take the very first entry, for M itself. It’s a large entry, containing many initialisms which begin with this letter. Back in 2000 our first example for ME (= ‘medical examiner’) came from Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1961). But a new discovery in 2008 by one of the dictionary’s correspondents took this back to 1935. Much the same happened to MI (= ‘myocardial infarction’), predated from 1973 to the current 1968, and to MYOB (= ‘mind your own business’) from 1915 right back to 1855 (and well before the time of SMS messaging).

These changes do not only apply for first dates: back in that first range the second definition of magadize has been amended as a result of new data, as was part of the definition for magic word (= ‘please’). In 2007 the entry for magnolia was expanded by the introduction of a subsense for the North American magnolia warbler.

So the steady advance through the alphabet to R is paralleled, on a smaller scale, by important changes that happen to entries that have already been revised, as the OED keeps up with the language on as many fronts as it is realistically able.

Royalynn O’Connor (4 April 1963 – 3 October 2009)

Royalynn was the foremost advocate of the OED online in the United States at the time of the dictionary’s online launch in 2000. In the 1990s Royalynn was the Online Product Director at Oxford University Press in New York. She was well aware that the concept of putting the OED online was revolutionary at the time: was the Internet up to handling such a large text database? Could we develop search routines that were efficient (and useful)? There were many such questions the answers of which could have beached the project.

Without her infectious enthusiasm and her evangelizing mission to make the online OED accessible to every North American university library, and beyond, it’s very likely that the rise of the OED online would have been much less swift. Her premature death in October 2009 robbed the OED of one of its staunchest supporters, and I’d like to record here the debt that the dictionary owes to Royalynn.

Lexicographical conference in Oxford

Perhaps I can end by noting that the Fifth ICHLL conference (the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology) takes place in Oxford next year, between 16 and 18 June 2010. Although this is not an ‘OED’ conference, it seems an excellent opportunity for historical lexicographers and others to meet together to discuss their work.