September 2008 update: revision notes

September 2008 update: revision notes

Keywords updated: round two

March 2008 saw a significant innovation in the publication of revised and updated OED entries, with the appearance online of a series of major terms outside the main alphabetical sequence (MR) that we have been editing since March 2000. September 2008 continues that trend, with the publication of a second series of major words.

What does it mean to be British?

Many of the key terms in this publication release can be analysed as belonging to a number of sets. Firstly, there is a set based around Englishness and Britishness (drawing in all of the words starting with Anglo-). This follows the previous publication of the American words in March. In its principal sense (now dated from the Anglo-Saxon period, rather than OED2‘s 1387)), the adjective British was originally a geographical description, but it had developed political overtones by the sixteenth century.

The emergence of the name Britain (and Great Britain) is comprehensively covered in the etymological section at the entry for BRITAIN n. 2, and the development of England is similarly described at ENGLAND n.   ENGLISH adj. contains an account of the evolution of meaning from its original presumed sense ‘of or belonging to the Angles’, through the shifts in meaning and perception as England became part of Great Britain, then the United Kingdom, the British Empire, and beyond.

The Anglo- entries take England (and Britain) abroad, as many of the compounds commemorate historical (and often continuing) links between the British Isles and its associates further afield. Anglo-American dates from 1769: Benjamin Franklin is currently the earliest cited user of the term as an adjective, displacing OED1‘s first references to the word later in the eighteenth century. OED1 included most of these entries in the single Anglo- entry, whereas the evidence for their use now shows that they often mean more than just ‘English and –‘, and so merit main-entry status.

Reinvestigating key scientific terms

The second set of related terms document modern developments in science, and here we have clusters of terms centred around four major words: atom, carbon, cell, and chemistry. An atom was originally a medieval unit of time (‘of which there were 376 in a minute and 22,560 in an hour’). It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the word came to be generally understood as a particle of matter (hypothetical or actual), the early nineteenth century before it made its appearance in modern chemistry, and not until the mid twentieth century that it came to mean the source of a distinctive form of energy. The adjective atomic is not known until 1678 in English (a century earlier in French), and its semantic trajectory in comparison with atom makes for interesting reading.

Carbon enters English in the late eighteenth century from French, at a time when English was eager to adopt the new scientific vocabulary emerging from the work of Lavoisier and others in France (oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.). The term itself was subject to several shifts in meaning in the nineteenth century (by 1895, for example, it was being used as a shortening of ‘carbon paper’ in the new business of typewriting. But it was as a compound that carbon has most affected the language, in descriptions of chemicals from the early nineteenth century to the ecological vocabulary of today (carbon emission, carbon footprint, carbon offset, etc.).

Big and bad is cool

The next set of terms are grammatically and (in some cases) semantically linked. They are all major adjectives: bad, big, cool, and hot. The etymological origins of both bad and big are ultimately unknown, though that does not mean that there has been no speculation about their possible derivation, as OED3‘s etymologies demonstrate.

Of these words, each had established most of today’s principal meanings at an early date. Bad was pretty settled by the late sixteenth century, but later flourishes (principally evolving as a result of specialized uses in North America). The ‘twist’ whereby bad can shift from having a negative sense to a positive one (‘good’, ‘excellent’) now seems to date from the end of the nineteenth century.

After a period of fairly stable use big begins to develop new senses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but its major innovations occur in phrasal use. Cool, too, establishes its main meanings early, with little significant innovation until the twentieth-century introduction of the senses ‘relaxed’ and ‘sophisticated’. But hot (also stable for many years beforehand) begins to flex its semantic muscles in the nineteenth century, new senses again often appearing first in American usage (see, for example, a hot topic, hot property, and the meanings ‘(of a horse) heavily backed’, ‘(of a gambler) on a run of luck’, and generally ‘splendid, very skilled’).

Are all the days of the week much the same?

Two other major groupings included in this release are the English names for the days of the week and the months of the year. By alphabetical chance we had already revised and updated four of the twelve months in the regular alphabetical editing (March, May, October, and November), but we had only had the opportunity to revise one of the days of the week (Monday).

At first we thought that editing each set together would bring more consistency to their treatment, but (as a review of the entries will show) this has not always been possible. As regards the days of the week, there is considerable parallelism of treatment for the ‘quieter’ days of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but as we approach the weekend the entries for the remaining days show considerable variation, related to activities typically associated with the day (for instance, church-going, leisure).

The months exemplify similar variation about a basic structure. The variation is mainly caused by phrases and compounds associated with the month, and these typically relate to the weather, flora and fauna, and any major world events with which the months are historically linked (e.g. the October Revolution). So, lexically speaking, January is quite quiet, February slightly more active, March much more so (March ale, March beer, March dust, March wind, etc.). April is probably less productive than March, but May and June soon make up for this, with a host of compounds celebrating the northern hemisphere’s summer. Productivity drops off in July, August, and September, before a slight flurry in October. November and December are perhaps quieter in terms of lexical productivity than we might have expected.

More big updates

By dividing some of the revised and updated entries in these sets we are liable to overlook several other clusters of words which document change in the English language and within English-speaking cultures over the last thousand years and more. The main protagonists as yet unmentioned are:

art, boy, food, lady, sex, sport, street, table, voice, and word.

As the cluster of words surrounding them alphabetically are generally revised at the same time, art (itself a term which has seen many nuances and shifts of meaning over the centuries) brings with it artefact, arterial, artery, arthritis, article, articulation, artifice, artificial, artillery, artist, arty, and many other words. Sex sweeps up sexism, sexist, sextant, sextet, sextuple, sexual, sexuality, sexy, and more.

How core meanings shift slightly over the centuries

One of the fascinating aspects of revising the dictionary is seeing how the central meaning of a key word has altered slightly over the hundred or so years since its entry was originally prepared. The lexicographer tracks these changes in updating the definitions, but also observes the same changes introducing new streams of phrases and compounds.

Artillery meant something slightly different to the original OED editors of the late nineteenth century than it does to us today. Then, heavy artillery was horse-drawn; artillery was used against an enemy within visible range; the projectiles used by artillery would often seem rather old-fashioned today. During the twentieth century shifts in the use of artillery in conjunction with targets out of visible range and in/from the air have altered our understanding of the term, as have the new styles of weapons available from the early twentieth century onwards. The word has a different feel today than it had a hundred years ago. Compare these groups of compounds:

(16th century: artillery company, artillery ground , artillery piece; 18th century: artillery brigade, artillery horse, artillery piece; modern: artillery attack, artillery barrage, artillery shell.)

This is true of many other words: sport was becoming ‘organized’ in the late nineteenth century. Before then, the term was largely used in the sense ‘entertainment’ (betraying its origins in ‘disport’) or in the narrow sense of hunting, shooting, and fishing. The semantic movement of the word over the centuries is demonstrated in the various senses it develops, but also in the evolution of phrases and compounds associated with its various meanings (early period: in sport, to make sport; 18th century: the sport of kings; modern period: sports clothes, sports centre, sports psychology, sport utility, etc.).

The OED should have an up-to-date entry for word. And now it does.