A time capsule of English

A time capsule of English

In general the OED publishes around 2,000 new and revised entries each quarter, and so the scheduled 1,947 entries (5,856 lexical items) in the present release looked – from a planning perspective – a reasonable amount to edit in the time available. But we didn’t take as close note of the complexity of the material as we might have done. We came near to cancelling all police leave in order to get the entries shipshape and ready to publish. And yet now that the text is all finalized and ready to publish, it looks an impressive set.

For the historian of the OED it is good to see ant finally revised. Ant was the last word in the very first instalment of the OED (or NED as it then was) way back in 1884, when the first ‘release’ of the dictionary, ‘A to ant’, was published to an unsuspecting public. After 128 years we are now able to predate almost all of the subsenses and compounds nested in the entry. In 1884 the primary meaning of ant was described in wording that documents the Victorian world-view as clearly as is possible in a dictionary definition, as:

A small social insect of the Hymenopterous order, celebrated for its industry; an emmet, a pismire. There are several genera and many species, exhibiting in their various habits and economy some of the most remarkable phenomena of the insect world.

We need to ask ourselves whether our revised definition will tell our successors as much about us today:

Any of various small insects constituting the family Formicidae of the order Hymenoptera, which typically live in complex social colonies, are usually wingless except for fertile adults in the mating season (‘flying ants’), and often have a sting.

Antique clockWe chose TIME itself as the signature word for this release, as it contains a plethora of revised and new material. Here are some of the 607 terms (in 110 entries) nestling away in that part of the alphabet:

TIME: time, time frame, timeless, time limit, time machine, timepiece, timescale, timeshare, time sheet, time shift, time-space, time stamp, timetable, time travel, time trial, time warp, time-wasting, timid, timing

We’re particularly keen to work through some of the ‘big’ words towards the beginning of the alphabet, where revision is most needed. So we selected the BLOOD range: bloody used to be the English swear word par excellence, and there is plenty to say about it since its publication in the old New English Dictionary (or NED, as the Oxford English Dictionary was known to its nineteenth-century readers):

BLOOD: blood (including bloodbath, bloodhound, blood-red, bloodshed, bloodshot, bloodstain, bloodsucking, blood test, bloodthirsty), bloody (106 entries; 440 lexical items)

As usual, we finished up some way from the original meanings of BLOOD as a fluid circulating in the body – in the lands of vampires, detectives, heady cocktails, and animal passions.

Previous releases have covered a number of energy and eco- words (notably electricity, the eco- words themselves, and green). The energy lobby is represented this time by the complete set of GAS words, leading us from the substance studied and utilized in chemistry and as a fuel, through street- and home-lighting, to cooking and all the other uses of gas(es) today:

GAS: gas, gasbag, gas balloon, gas fire, gas fitter, gash, gashouse, gasket, gaslight, gasometer, gasp, gas turbine, gas words (130 entries; 363 lexical items)

The principal entry contains a salutary reminder that the first meaning of gas in English (‘J. B. van Helmont’s name for: water supposedly charged with a vital principle and thought to be contained in all bodies and released upon combustion in the form of extremely rarefied water vapour’) probably comes to us via Dutch from the Latin or Greek forms of the word chaos.

Modes of transport are always significant indicators of social and lexical change. Boats were generally even more peaceful in the nineteenth century, before the advent of the outboard motor (previously published, with a first reference of 1909), and trains have developed a culture of their own, whether powered by steam, electricity, or diesel:

On the water and along the rails
boat (with many derivatives and compounds, such as boatbuilding, boat hook, boatlift, boatman, boat people, boatswain, and bosun)
loco, locomotive
surf, surface, surface-to-air, surfboard, surfeit, surfer, surf-riding
train, trainable, trained, trainer, training, trainspotter

Alongside our preoccupations with energy efficiency and travel comes health. A very outdated NED entry for BULIMIA (in those days bulimy) is swept away. The feared CHOLERA is fully reviewed, from its medieval meanings up to the modern disease, now first recorded from 1807, though the disease wasn’t properly recognized until the time of the first and second pandemics, sweeping across India in 1817 and reaching North America by 1832.

bulimia, cholera, flu (and influenza)
germ, germicidal, germinate
veg, vegan, vegeburger, vegetable, vegetate, vegeto- words, veggie

We can follow the patterns of spread of INFLUENZA (by the early nineteenth century reduced to FLU, or at least flue), its extent demonstrated by the geographical compounds (Spanish flu, Asian flu) and those compounds involving animal names, such as avian flu and swine flu. VEGETARIAN reminds us that the practice of vegetarianism has been around for many years – the OED’s first example of vegetarian in the sense ‘a person who abstains from eating animal food and lives principally or wholly on a plant-based diet’ dating from 1842, in the Healthian magazine.

One of the longest entries in the present release is SCHOOL. In the old days it included the sub-entry HIGH SCHOOL, but this has at last been hived off to H as an entry in its own right. Alongside SCHOOL we have EDUCATION. The wider economy is represented by CAPITALIST, DESIGNER, SUSTAINABLE, and the DATA words:

Education, business, and design
business, busk, busker, bust, buster, bustle, bustling, busy
capital, capitalism, capitalist, capitalize, capitalization, capitano, Capitol, capitulate
DAT, data (and datum), data processing, date, dated, dateline, date stamp, dative
design, designate, designer
educate, education, educe
school, schoolboy, schoolgirl, schooling, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, schoolroom, schoolteacher
sustain, sustainable, sustaining, sustenance

Something of a catch-all grouping continues our coverage of countries and religions, with FEMALE following MALE (one of the first revised entries at the start of M) and SOUL following along in the wake of BODY (revised September 2010):

Mind, body, and spirit
female, feminine, feminism, feminist, femme fatale
German, Germanic
Islam, Islamic, Islamification, Islamo- words
soul, soul brother, soulful, soul music, soul-searching, soul sister

Much of the complexity of the current release lies tucked away in innocent-looking combining forms and affixes. Histo- seems like a minor range until you realize that alphabetically it contains HISTORY and HISTORICAL, concepts which are central both to the dictionary and to culture as a whole. There is no escaping the complexities that HISTORY brings with it, and we had to remember that the OED’s entry should treat history both as a way of viewing and interpreting the past from the standpoint of today, as well (though slightly differently no doubt) from historical standpoints in the past. Astro- takes us well away from the sphere of the geo- words: ionosphere and Uranus balance in-between.

Combining forms and affixes (mostly scientific)
astro- (including, of course, astrology, astronomy, and astrophysics)
fluo- words (including fluorescent, fluoride)
geo- words (including geocache, geocentric, geodesic, geography, geology, geometry, geomorphology, geopolitical, Geordie, Georgian
histo- words (including histogram, histology)
ion, -ion, Ioniac, Ionic, ionize, ionosphere
uran- words (including uranalysis, Urania, Uranianism, uranic, uranium, urano- words – including uranography, uranoscopy – Uranus, urinalysis

On our way to wrapping up the personal pronouns, the second-person makes its appearance in this release, in all of its forms. We have already edited the first-person pronouns, and the third-person ones are scheduled for future release:

Second-person pronouns
thee, thine, thou, thy, thyself
y’, ya, ye, yer, yez, yit, yo, you, you-all, your, yourn, yourself, yourselves, yous, yuh

Tying up the release are a few oddments. We are topping and tailing the geographical theme with Arctic and Antarctic, offering another vegetable in the form of cabbage, and returning to the scientific story with X-ray.

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED

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.