March 2007 update: revision notes

March 2007 update: revision notes

The revised range of the OED published on 15 March 2007 runs from Prakrit to prim. It contains 2,693 entries (8,756 subsenses, including compounds, etc.). This brings the total number of main entries in the OED to 259,487 (containing 684,542 subsenses).

The prefix pre- dominates the newly revised range

The dominant feature of this release is the sequence of words beginning with pre-, which follows its counterpart post- in the alphabet in the same contradictory way as before follows after. Pre- dominates the range both in numbers and in meaning. The main entry for pre- itself contains 701 words to which pre- is prefixed, and it is immediately followed by 2,263 main entries most of which involve the use of pre- as a prefix. Semantically, the presence of pre- means that most of the terms in this release are involved with something happening or being placed before something else. So we have preadapt, pre-AIDS, pre-announcement, pre-arm, prebiotic, prebuttal, etc. pre- turns out to be the prefix with the longest entry so far in the Third Edition of the OED, appearing in the rankings just ahead of two other recently revised prefixes, non- and over-.

Set (the verb) no longer the longest entry in the OED

For many years the verb to set has been cited as the longest entry in the OED. But a recheck shows that it has at last been toppled from this position. The longest entry in the revised matter is represented by the verb to make (published in June 2000). However, it is quite possible that set will regain its long-held position at the top of the league of long words when it comes itself to be revised.

In ranking order, the longest entries currently in the online Third Edition of the OED are: make (verb – revised), set (verb), run (verb), take (verb), go (verb), pre- (revised), non- (revised), over- (revised), stand (verb), red, and then point (the noun – revised).

Some other features of this range

Other than pre-, the range does not contain another ‘big’ word, but it does contain a large number of smaller, important terms. The following list includes many of the more significant terms published in their revised form here:

pram prance prank prat prattle pray prayer pre- preach preamble prebendary precaution precede precinct precious precipitate precise predecessor predestination predicate predominant pre-empt preface prefect prefer prefix pregnant prehistoric prejudice preliminary prelude premature premeditate premier premise premiss premium preoccupy prep preparation prepare presbytery prescribe presence present preserve preside president press pressure prestige presume presuppose pretence pretend pretty prevail prevaricate prevent preview previous prey price prick pride priest prig prim

Subscribers can follow the links to see some of the full entries highlighted above or elsewhere on this page. Some typical examples of revised and updated entries are found under praline, precipice, and preppy.

If the range contains a cluster of important terms from a particular area of life, then it is probably from religion and the Church, represented by preach, prebendary, presbytery, priest, and a number of other terms.

Descriptive versus prescriptive lexicography

The previous edition of the OED regarded the pair of words descriptive and prescriptive (both of which have been used to describe styles of lexicography) as originating in the mid eighteenth century, at a period noted for its admiration for order and discipline in the arts. Descriptive was first recorded by OED1 from one of Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essays right in the middle of the eighteenth century, in 1751. The word prescriptive preceded this by three years, being first recorded in volume seven of Richardson’s Clarissa in 1748. One hundred years later, the picture has changed somewhat. The certainty of mid eighteenth-century prescriptivism (sense 1) has been shaken in OED3 as examples of prescriptive (sense 1) have come to light from 1734 and then again, even earlier, from 1663.

Much the same happens in the second major sense of prescriptive (in this case in legal contexts). The previous edition of the OED again regards the meaning as originating in the mid eighteenth century (1765, in Blackstone’s Commentaries); OED3 is also able to take this sense back to the 1660s.

The final major sense of prescriptive (from anthropology) was dated from 1958 by the Supplement to the OED (and consequently by OED2), whereas new research shows that it can be documented at least from 1922.

preverbal communication

Similar ground-shifting events have happened to the term preverbal. The pre- here can relate to time (a ‘preverbal child’) or to place (in the grammatical use ‘positioned before a verb’). OED3 takes the first sense back from 1931 to 1891, and the second from 1948 to 1908.

Republication of published entries

One of the advantages of publishing the OED online is that entries can be updated even after they have been originally published in their revised form. Changes evident in the current republication occur outside the newly revised range Prakrit – prim, and include:

ossicule (in anatomy and zoology): modern quotation provided, and so the term is no longer marked as obsolete

overshoe: antedated from 1832 to 1770

pair royal: prile forms moved to a new main entry

party work added at the entry for party (noun)

The editors would like to thank the many users of the Dictionary who have supplied further information of this nature.

The march of the Thin Red Line

Thanks should also go to those who have risen to the challenge of the ‘thin red line’. In 1986 Yvonne Warburton, at the time a researcher on the OED and now managing the online publication of the Dictionary, published an article describing research she had conducted for the OED on the phrase thin red line. This research was conducted before the advent of large searchable databases of historical text. The article was republished some time ago as part of the OED Online site. Her research back in 1986 had resulted in the expression being dated back to 1877 – although the term was widely associated with the Crimean War (1854-6). She ended with the plea: ‘If you ever see thin red line earlier than 1877, let us know!’

Sure enough, users of the OED Online have been busy hunting out earlier examples, with quotations being supplied from 1873 back to 1859 (two different quotations from different readers). And finally (for now) the expression has been uncovered in The Times of 24 January 1855, citing a debate about the distribution of ‘Crimean medals’ in the House of Lords the previous evening at which the Earl of Ellenborough had said:

“Nor were the services performed by the gallant 93d be forgotten – the services of that ‘thin red line’ which had met and routed the Russian cavalry.”

Unless, of course, you know better.


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