100,000 entries published and counting

100,000 entries published and counting

We haven’t just been monitoring the language over the last few months. We’ve also been monitoring how close the OED has come to the milestone of 100,000 new and revised entries published since March 2000, when the dictionary first went online with updated material.

This December 2011 release (AA-AEVUM) takes us past that milestone, and at present the running total stands at 102,133 entries (or 37% of the dictionary entries on OED Online).

Right at the start of the alphabet

Whoever invented the English language certainly top-loaded it with difficult words. When we began revising the OED we started at the letter M, in order to work initially on material that was of a much more even editorial standard than in the early letters of A, B, and C, etc. We planned to return to A when the editorial wheels were well in motion.

And now that time has come. On reflection, we were right to leave these early letters till now. The editorial issues involved in updating them are in fact of the same order of magnitude as for letters later in the alphabet – once you take account of the fact that most of these entries are effectively unchanged since they were first written in the early 1880s. What we hadn’t anticipated was how complex some of these early words are.

Any lexicographer will tell you that the vowel letters are much more complex to analyse and edit than the consonants – as a broad-brush statement. The early part of the letter A contains a large percentage of old and moderately large and important verbs – not blockbusting verbs of the make, pull, put, run, set variety, but just a constant stream of fascinating and yet difficult verbs guaranteed to give the editors constant pause for thought.

Here are some of this words I’m talking about (and remember that each comes with a band of related derivatives which carry with them many of the same editorial issues):

  • abandon, abase, abate, abbreviate, abdicate, abduct, abhor, absorb, abstain, abuse
  • accede, accelerate, accept, access, acclaim, acclimatize, accommodate, accompany, accomplish, account, accredit, accrete, accrue, accumulate, accuse, accustom, acquaint, acquiesce, acquire
  • adapt, adhere, adjoin, adjudge, adjust, administer, admire, admit, admonish, adopt, adore, advance, advise, and advocate.

Alongside these verbs and their offspring we also find other major terms, which all need careful editing:

  • abbey, about, abstract, abstruse, absurd, abundant
  • academic, accent, accident, accord, accurate, ace, acoustics, acre, acrid, acute
  • adamant, adequate, adept, adjacent, adroit, adult, adventure, adverse, and aesthetic.

Capital letter A by James TissotHere are a couple of typical issues. Firstly, adhere. We think of the adhere/adhesion words as having to do with sticking – something adheres or sticks to something else, or things stick together. And that is certainly a major meaning for this set of words. But by tracking in detail the emergence of these words and their derivatives in English we can see quite clearly that the ‘sticking’ meaning isn’t the earliest sense to arrive in English (the words were borrowed from French at the end of the Middle Ages). By and large for each entry in this set the earliest meaning relates to supporting or showing allegiance to someone else. The sticking meaning comes in later, in the Early Modern period. Then we notice – by looking backwards into French – that this sense of owing allegiance would appear to be the primary meaning in French too. It is only by researching in detail each of the English words and their meanings, and following the evidence back into French, that this twist comes through.

It’s noteworthy that the first edition of the OED – which is essentially the text that is being updated here – adjusts the presentation of the evidence for adhere (despite its avowed principles) to show the sticking sense first – and thus offering a confusingly imprecise view of the word’s record.

We can review another example of the complexity of reviewing early evidence, and the surprising results that can be found. Take the word adequate; a regular enough adjective meaning ‘satisfactory’, not remarkable but sufficient.

The adequate set of words entered English towards the end of the 16th century and into the 17th. The first to hit the OED’s radar is the verb to adequate (1593 – in the writings of Thomas NASH, who favoured a number of these new adequate words). But what strikes us today – and makes lexical analysis of the set more complex – is the link between adequate (which we think of as meaning ‘satisfactory’) and the word equate (which crossword buffs and others will see is buried inside adequate). The original (etymological) meaning of adequate as an adjective is ‘equal in size or extent; exactly equivalent in form’ (my italics). The verb to adequate originally meant ‘to make equal or commensurate with; to bring into correspondence or balance’. For this word set the modern sense of ‘satisfactory, sufficient’ only creeps in later, and nowadays most of us entirely fail to think of adequate in terms of ‘equality’ or ‘balance’. In this case, the original OED did allow primacy to the older meaning.

In fact one of the problems modern-day editors have when they update very old OED definitions is that those early definitions adhere quite inadequately to the older etymological meaning of the word being defined. We’ve seen this with adequate. We also see it with accurate. Etymologically, accurate derives from the Latin curare, which means ‘to care for’, or ‘to take care of’. Now in order to emphasize this etymological meaning of ‘care’ the first edition of the OED shoehorned the definitions, against the evidence, so as to present the senses of accurate and related words in the context of ‘care’. So we find the older sense 1 defined as ‘executed with care’, sense 2 ‘(of things or persons) exact, precise, correct, as the result of care’, and sense 3 ‘of things, without special reference to the evidence of care: exact, precise, correct, nice [etc.].’ This approach is quite typical of the first edition of the dictionary, and especially in its early letters; the scholarly view it enshrines is quite different from that held today – and indeed from the view that came to be held by the original OED editors as work progressed through the first edition – and helps to explain the additional complexities that confront today’s editors when addressing the early entries of the first edition of the dictionary.

Authors on the move

This release marks another landmark – the completion of work converting the 6,000+ quotations in the OED from Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene from the various editions cited in the first edition of the dictionary (especially the Globe edition of Morris and Hales of 1869) to the first printing (1590 and 1596). The original checking for the new edition was done by Professor Noel Cinnamon, of the Mars Hill College, North Carolina – who had previously been hard at work on the OED’s quotations from the works of Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke.

Spenser appears at No 29 in the OED’s top-cited authors, framed on either side by John Lydgate at No. 28 and Harper’s Magazine at No. 30. The position holds good for the new release, and the number of Spenser quotations increases very slightly between September and December 2011 from 6262 to 6266. However (and in keeping with the trend whereby canonical authors lose ground as a wider variety of sources are searched) the total number of words for which he is now the first-cited author drops from 546 to 544, and he falls below 1700 for first-cited senses (1702 down to 1699).

Readers may be interested to see similar drops this quarter for other authors (following the same established trend):

William Shakespeare (total quotations now)   33,150 (September: 33,174) – Ranked: 1
(first-cited for words)    1607     (1618)
(first-cited for senses)   8112    (8153)
John Milton (total quotations now) 12,435 (September: 12,443) – Ranked 7
(first-cited for words) 601 (September: 605)
(first-cited for senses) 2131 (September: 2138)

and a sample from authors lower in the list (showing some fluctuation for lesser-known but productive writers):

William Cobbett 517 (515) – Ranked 929 (Sept 2011), 927 (Dec 2011)
31 (31)
145 (145)
H. Rider Haggard 491 (493)
6 (6)
62 (62)

The completion of work on the existing quotations from Edmund Spenser shows some significant changes. In general the text used by the original dictionary was good, and so changes are not as extensive as has been the case with more ‘heroically’ edited works. The consistent feature of this sort of activity is that Victorian editorial intervention is reversed (as v returns to u, original commas are reintroduced, excrescent hyphens are removed). Many of these changes were made to render the text more approachable to an educated Victorian readership, but are out of place in an analytic study of 16th-century text. On a routine level, the older form of this quotation included in the OED at launch vb.:

A sharpe bore-speare, With which he wont to launch the salvage hart Of many a Lyon .

returns (with changes highlighted here) to:

A sharpe borespeare, With which he wont to launch the saluage hart Of many a Lyon .

Similarly, at lass n. we find:

And eke that Lady, his faire lovely lasse.

reverts to:

And eke that Lady his faire louely lasse.

Occasionally the wrong date is given for the quotation (at regiment):

1596 SPENSER Faerie Queene II. X. 30 When he had resigned his regiment. [old]

1590 SPENSER Faerie Queene II. X. sig. X8, When he had resignd his regiment. [new]

From time to time more extensive alterations are necessary in order to correct the text and reference, as at tie vb. :

1590 SPENSER Faerie Queene I. VI. 21 In sacred bonds of wedlock tyde.


1590 SPENSER Faerie Queene I. VI. sig. F2, In sacred bandes of wedlocke tyde.

Work of this sort has been continuing quietly, behind the scenes, on the OED for many years now, as the texts represented by the dictionary more closely reflects the texts available to its original audience, in whatever century and the intervention of later editors is, as far as possible, removed.

John Simpson
Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Image: James Joseph Jacques Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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