A new stream of work on the OED

A new stream of work on the OED

Revising the etymology and variant forms section in selected entries ahead of full revision

Over the past eighteen months we have begun a new initiative as part of the ongoing revision of the OED: revising the etymology and variant forms section in entries that have yet to be revised in full. We are doing this in order to remedy deficiencies in entries that hitherto lacked an etymology, or where we have been aware that the etymology and variant forms sections already offered could be significantly improved, ahead of revision of the full OED entry. We have done this by making use of spare moments in our schedules, where members of the etymology team had completed their work on OED revision ranges slightly ahead of expectations. By working in this way, we have now managed to publish over 1500 revised etymologies and variant forms sections in this new stream of work. For each of these entries, a note appears in the “Entry history” window, “Etymology and variant forms provisionally revised”, together with the date when these revisions were published.

Cases where we have revised existing etymologies and forms sections include the numerals four, five, and six (as well as related entries such as fourth, fourteen, forty, etc.). These words have sizeable etymology sections, and very many recorded historical spelling forms. We have seized the opportunity to revise them now, taking advantage of approaches we had already developed working on other numerals that are now revised in full, such as nine and one. We are delighted in this way to be able to share the best etymological information currently available to us for these words, and a wealth of information on their historical spellings, ahead of full revision of these entries.

In many more cases, we have added an etymology section where OED previously did not have one, and also revised the variant forms section at the same time. Often it is clear that earlier editors considered the etymology obvious, and found that omission of an explicit etymology was a convenient space saver at a time when the dictionary existed only in paper form; sometimes, it appears more likely that earlier editors had been unable to undertake the research to resolve a particular etymology, and had passed this over in silence.

Different considerations apply today, when publication is electronic, and researchers may want to search across all words of a particular etymological type in the dictionary (compounds, derivatives, loanwords, etc.), and may want to combine this information with other types of information in complex searches, or as part of larger research projects.

Words for which we have now supplied explicit, if ultimately easily guessable, etymologies include such familiar items as the compounds bombshell, driftwood, ducking-stool, duckweed, dustbin, drip-dry, and dumb-bell, derivatives like caterwauling (adjective) or domineering (adjective), conversions, such as uses of boost as a noun, or shortenings like bop (< bebop).

In other cases, such as dragonfly, the composition of the word may hold few surprises, but there is rather more to say about how the name came about, including a range of parallels in other languages. Similarly, at Dutchland we feel that readers will want to be told why this term refers sometimes to Germany and sometimes to the Netherlands, and what its foreign-language antecedents are. Additionally, there are formations from proper names, such as Cleopatran or cebell, where both etymological and encyclopaedic information has been added.

In some cases, like dug n.2, we still at present have no convincing etymology to offer, but at least we can now state this explicitly, while at bougar we can now offer a lot more information about the spelling history, even if a conclusive etymology remains elusive.

There are loanwords from Latin, of all periods, such as (from classical Latin) cichorium, cerevisious, dispositrix, or dominium, (from post-classical Latin) clypeiformous, completorium, or cazimi (which entered Latin via Arabic from Greek), and (from scientific Latin) cedron. Another likely Latin loan is disper, which originated in Winchester College slang. There is a probable pun on a Greek word at catarumpant, and one on a Latin word at collocavit.

There are also many neo-classical combining forms, where some mention was made of the Latin or Greek etymons in the defining text, but much clearer, more explicit, and more detailed etymological information is now supplied, as at dorsi-, dorso-, duo-, duodecim-, duodeno-, dys-, or –drome.

There are borrowings from French, such as bord alexander or bordrie (both fabric names), Italian, such as commenda or dapocaginous, German, as cedrin (a chemical term), or Dutch, as dripplekie, doublejee, or the related loan from Dutch and Afrikaans dubbeltjie, where there was a particular wealth of complex spelling variation to record.

Since there are relatively few loans from Scottish Gaelic in the OED, it is particularly satisfying to be able to pick out one more, which had hitherto been unflagged in the dictionary: bowger, a bird name from St Kilda.

As this new stream of work continues, we hope to be able to share many more such nuggets with our readers, while progressively making the dictionary more comprehensive and robust for all uses.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.