From ‘abaca’ to ‘kilig’: World English and the OED

From ‘abaca’ to ‘kilig’: World English and the OED

In its March 2016 update, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published an entry for the Philippine English word kilig, an addition that attracted considerable media attention that eventually led to the word becoming one of the dictionary’s most consulted entries that year. Kilig, a borrowing from Tagalog, is a noun referring to the exhilaration or elation caused by an exciting or romantic experience, but it can also be used adjectivally to describe a person feeling this thrill, or a thing that causes or expresses such an emotion. It is a very useful word that signifies a universally understood sentiment, and it is no wonder that its inclusion in the OED was greeted with enthusiasm by many people.

However, as fun and interesting as it was for me to research and write the entry for this word, my most memorable kilig moment as an OED lexicographer did not involve kilig at all. It was that day at the Oxford University Press (OUP) Museum when I was shown actual paper slips that were used by the early OED editors in making the very first instalment of the dictionary – the fascicle covering A-Ant, which was published in 1884. One of the slips I held in my hand was for abaca, originally a Tagalog word for Manila hemp, a kind of banana plant native to the Philippines and the strong fibre that it yields. On the slip was the word’s definition written in the distinctive hand of James Murray himself – the OED’s first Chief Editor.

Kilig and abaca are both words of non-British origin whose dates of publication in the OED are separated by 132 years, and as such are perfect illustrations of how the dictionary’s policy towards and coverage of such words have evolved throughout its history, largely as a response to the remarkable rise of English to its current role as a global lingua franca.

Abaca appears on page five of the OED’s first fascicle, serving as proof that non-British words have had space in the dictionary from its earliest incarnation. However, the OED’s fascicles and the ten-volume First Edition (OED1) that was eventually completed in 1928 were written during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, a time when it was generally assumed that Standard British English made up the common core of the language. Consequently, the inclusion in the OED of words from outside this core, including foreign words, was an idea that not everyone embraced. James Murray’s correspondence from this period shows how much resistance he faced from his subeditors and superiors at OUP, as well as from consultants and reviewers, when he decided to include words such as the Philippine abaca, the South African aardvark, and the Indian amah to the first fascicle. The fact that these words remain in the OED to this day is testament to Murray’s commitment to including this type of vocabulary in the dictionary, and it is indeed during his several decades of editorship that a number of Anglo-Indian words (bungalow, chit, dal), Southeast Asian terms (gong, rattan, sarong, wat), and other lexical items of similarly foreign origin (chop-stick, ginseng, meerkat, okra) made their way into the OED.

A word such as abaca entering the OED in the late 19th century is not really that surprising, because as strange as the word may have sounded to Victorian ears, the objects made with this strong natural fibre are very familiar: paper, rope, matting, hats. The selection of words of foreign origin in OED1 reflects the interests and concerns of the British of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the native flora and fauna of their colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean; exotic local terms that British travellers and settlers pick up in these overseas territories; the names of the vast array of products that they import from every corner of the globe. These words found a place in the dictionary, but their alien status is marked in OED1 by two parallel lines beside the headword (||), a symbol known by the in-house term tramline.

The tramline method of classification was one that even Murray admitted was inherently subjective, and it was perhaps a desire to avoid inconsistencies in the use of this symbol that the Chief Editors of the 1933 Supplement to the OED, Charles Talbot Onions and William Craigie, decided to eliminate them altogether, even as they opened the dictionary’s gates to another wave of foreignisms (kumquat, bushveld, impala, safari, tango).

The 1970s and ‘80s saw a further expansion of the OED’s coverage of non-British words, with the publication of the four-volume Supplement edited by Robert Burchfield. This Supplement came at a time when regional Englishes spoken throughout the world began to be studied as varieties in their own right, and came to be known collectively as World Englishes. The OED responded to this paradigm shift by looking into the written English of Anglophone regions outside the British Isles. Burchfield’s Supplement added to the OED a wider variety of words that expressed various aspects of life in their places of origin (kebaya, gamelan, sambal, nasi goreng, satay, jeepney). However, this Supplement also marked a return to the use of tramlines to distinguish foreign words, a policy that was once again dropped in the twenty-volume Second Edition that was published in 1989.

Today, 90 years after the publication of the OED’s First Edition, the dictionary is undergoing a complete overhaul for its Third Edition (OED3), which is available exclusively online. One of the main goals of the OED’s ambitious revision project is widening the geographical coverage of the dictionary. This is in recognition of the fundamental changes that the English-speaking world has undergone since the OED was first conceived: the emerging language communities of 19th century now speak established varieties of English that are developing their own standards of grammar, pronunciation, and lexis. OED3 acknowledges that with the current status of English as a world language, no longer is British English to be regarded as the dominant form of English – it is only one of the many individual varieties of the language that share a common lexical core but develop their own unique vocabularies.

Giving proportionate and balanced treatment to words from all over the English-speaking world is an enormous challenge, but it is one that the editors of OED3 have the ability to take on, as we now have access to a wealth of information that was unavailable to editors of previous editions. The Internet enables us to instantly consult databases, newspapers, journals, and books from across the globe, as well as a number of regional dictionaries and grammars. We are also aided by contributions from members of the public, and specialist advice from an international network of consultants. Various forms of social media have also given us a view into current, informal, idiosyncratic uses of words from many different places, and even allow us to reach out to people who speak regional Englishes to ask them about the words that characterize their local speech.

These new research resources and methods have made it possible for words such as kilig to enter the OED. Kilig is evidently an important loanword in Philippine English that is widely used in conveying an untranslatable concept, but it is a word for which evidence could be found only from Philippine sources and would therefore have flown under the OED’s radar if we had limited our research to the usual Anglo-American texts.

In recent years, the OED has undertaken targeted projects to broaden its coverage of several Englishes, publishing particularly large batches of new entries for varieties spoken in Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and South Africa.   For each project, we have sought and been grateful to receive extensive expertise from linguists in the region, who have helped us document the varied means by which World English speakers continue to experiment with English vocabulary, using a wide range of strategies apart from simple borrowing in the invention of new words: from the direct translation of an expression in one language to another, as in add oil, a Hong Kong English interjection expressing encouragement, incitement, or support, which is literally translated from the Cantonese expression gā yáu, with reference to petrol being injected into an engine; to the blending of words from different languages, as in the Indian expression chakka jam, the blocking of a road as a form of civilian protest, a combination of Hindi chakka ‘wheel’ with the English word jam; to the creation of new compounds (Indian and Philippine English batchmate, a member of the same graduation class as another), clippings (Singapore English sabo for sabotage), and initialisms (Singapore English HDB, for Housing and Development Board; used to refer to the government-built high-rise apartment blocks most Singaporeans live in).

The OED also aims to more accurately reflect the everyday realities and distinctive identities of English speakers around the world, by venturing beyond the exoticism of the dictionary’s earlier editions and adding more and more words that today’s World English speakers use in their own local contexts to talk about their families (ate, kuya, abba, bapu, chacha, cousin brother, cousin sister), their food (char siu, milk tea, yum cha, chilli crab, bunny chow), their homes and surroundings (dirty kitchen, sari-sari store, dai pai dong, sitting-out area, hawker centre, wet market), even their feelings (kilig).

English is undoubtedly not the same language that it was that day in the 1880s when James Murray wrote his definition for abaca. Since then, it has become a truly global language, spoken by billions of people of immensely varied origins and backgrounds – and as these people continue to contribute to the richness and diversity of the English lexicon, so will the OED continue to adapt its policies and practices in order to ensure that these contributions are represented in the dictionary.

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.

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