March 2011 update: revision notes

March 2011 update: revision notes

Up and running online

It is a remarkable thing to have a new web site. And it is remarkable to see how much the environment has changed over the ten years since the OED first went online. Back in 2000 there was some curiosity about the online dictionary– no other big dictionary had dipped its toes in the water. But this time round there was an avalanche of interest in the new site, and for those first few hours there was even some concern that the site might topple over. Fortunately it didn’t, and it’s well able to handle the increased ‘traffic’ that’s padding along to each day. The OED’s relaunch was marked with a party for the press and others at the Oxford University Press offices on Madison Avenue, New York.

We are some way from having a full analysis of how the new site is being used, but there are some intriguing figures. Perhaps top of the list is that in January alone over 43% of the entries in the OED were inspected at least once. The entry most commonly searched for was the entry for dictionary itself, newly revised for the online relaunch (and with a new first example sending tremors through the lexicographical world). Right next to dictionary, in the silver-medal position, was love, followed closely by culture and then that old favourite nice.

More new material online

The current release brings the percentage of the OED that has been revised up above the 30% mark. For the purposes of measuring progress we use the number of lexical units in the dictionary (senses and nested compounds etc. – roughly anything that can have a paragraph of illustrative quotations associated with it). This is a more accurate measure than the number of headword entries.

We’ve now revised 285,403 out of a total of 796,591 ‘senses’. The number of ‘senses’ per entry has risen from around 1.7 in the first edition of the dictionary (1884-1928) to marginally under 3 per entry. As well as updating over 285,000 senses, we’ve added 45,437 new words and meanings. This means that over 13% of the dictionary is entirely new. Of the updated senses, 27% of them are ‘scientific’ – or were at least considered to fall within the sections allocated to the OED’s scientific editors for revision.

The newly revised range takes us from roto– right to the end of the letter R. In the days of the first edition of the dictionary the letter R was published in instalments over seven years (1903-10). The revised text appeared over nine quarters (just over two years). When we started revising the dictionary (at the letter M) we expected to move through to the end of R and then revert to A. But new editing software means that we can now be much more flexible, and we’re pinpointing major entries throughout the alphabet – with an eye particularly on those older ones near the beginning.

So this instalment to the end of R marks the last in the old series of revisions. In future the diet will be more alphabetically varied.

These are some of the more important entries in the range:

rotor, rotten, rotund, rough, round, rouse, rout, route, routine, rove, rover, row, royal, royalist, royalty, rub, rubber, rubbish, rubble, ruby, ruck, rudder, ruddy, rude, rudimentary, rue, ruff, ruffian, ruffle, rug, rugby, rugged, ruin, rule, ruler, rum, rumble, ruminant, ruminate, rummage, rumour, rump, run, rune, rung, runner, running, runt, rupee, rupture, rural, ruse, rush, russet, Russian, rust, rustic, rustle, rusty, rut, ruthless, ryegrass

The biggest entry in this range is run and its derivatives, another example of a very short word which plays a significant role in the language (alongside, for example, make, pull, put, and red). The verb alone contains 645 senses (including phrases and other idiomatic uses – compare unrevised set, with 579 senses at present), and is now the largest single entry in the dictionary, half as large again as the next-biggest word put (the verb). The lexicographer needs to find a way to present all of these usages of run in a structured way. The entry is here broken down into semantic sections: senses to do with moving quickly by means of the legs (athletes running); travelling or moving physically in other ways (trains running); flowing (subdivided into liquids that run and solids – like grains – that run); continuing or proceeding (time running); arranging or configuring (in space: fences running the length of a garden); operating (machines running). Then within these you have many further additional meanings or nuances, or transitive alongside intransitive uses; then phrases (such as to run a mile), idiomatic uses (phrasal verbs: to run up – with adverbs and prepositions). And for each sense there’s the first occurrence the editor has been able to find:

Sense 5c: To allow to range or feed at large; to graze (cattle, sheep, etc.):

1767 J. Lewis Uniting & Monopolizing Farms 8 Off-lands, to run young cattle, &c., upon.

Sense 51b: Of sand in an hourglass: to pass from one compartment into the other.

1557 Songes & Sonettes sig. R.iiv, I saw, my tyme how it did runne, as sand out of the glasse.

Sense 73d: Of a person: to act or behave in such a way as to go against an approved code of conduct, stricture, trend, etc.

1542 R. Burdet Dyalogue Def. Women sig. E.iii, With ragynge and raylynge, they ronne agaynst ryght.

My feeling is that set hasn’t developed as much as run in the 20th and 21st centuries and so, when revised, it will be touch-and-go whether it hauls itself back into the largest-entry position it held in the first and second editions of the dictionary.

There are easier entries: try ruffian, rugby, ruthless. How has rude changed its meaning over the centuries? More or less all of the meanings of rude were in place by the end of the Middle English period, ranging through this spectrum: without reason, harsh, violent, primitive, inexpert, unrefined, raw, makeshift, inexact, and impolite. One fascinating thing about rude is how a French word with a wide range of meanings entered English (via Anglo-Norman) in an equally wide range of meanings. The new word and the new senses seem to have been ‘borrowed’ in a shower.

The about-this-entry graphic at rude shows how many of its senses entered English at approximately the same time.

If you’d like a more graceful introduction to the OED try the revised entry at rotunda (and check the ‘Previous version’ link to see how the entry has changed during revision). Or click the first ‘Thesaurus’ button in the entry and compare rotunda with quadrangle, rotundo, tholos, umbrella, rotund, flat-iron, cone, tetragon, tempietto, igloo, and shoe-box.

As if by careful planning the newly revised entries include royal. Sense 3d covers royal wedding and royal marriage. ‘The royal we’ is predated from 1835 to 1821, but perhaps rather puzzlingly in relation to Napoleon:

1821 London Lit. Gaz. 28 July 470/1 The first use of the royal we by Buonaparte was in the appointment of his brother-in-law, Leclerc, to St. Domingo, in autumn 1801.

Finally, those of you who have corresponded with the OED by letter, phone, or email over the past few years may well have received an answer from Margot Charlton. Margot retires from the dictionary’s administrative staff in April after 25 years – formally as the OED’s departmental secretary, but to the outside world as the tirelessly polite voice of the OED responding readily to enquiring, valuable, intriguing, and sometime frankly puzzling communications on language. She arrived as the hot metal used to print the four volumes of the Supplement to the OED was finally being cooled in 1986, and leaves just after the OED web site has relaunched. With very best wishes for a happy retirement from all of your contacts across the world!

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.