OED100: Repainting the dictionary

OED100: Repainting the dictionary

Painting the Forth Bridge is a saying that often comes to mind when discussing the task of updating the OED. The phrase refers to the massive railway bridge across the Firth of Forth in Scotland, and the huge job of keeping its painted surfaces maintained. This task took so long, it was said, that by the time you reached the end, the paint at the start of the bridge was already in need of repainting. The story may be apocryphal, but the phrase has endured, and is used to refer to any arduous or never-ending task.

One of the early examples of the phrase being used in this sense is from 1955, and refers – rather satisfyingly – to the work of keeping a dictionary up-to-date:

1955   Times 2 Mar. 7/1   One of its main tasks is to keep the authoritative dictionary of the French language up to date, and this task, like painting the Forth bridge, is never finished.

Language is a living thing. Not only is it always growing – as evidenced by the new words and senses that are added to the OED every year – but the language itself is also constantly evolving. Words shift in meaning and association, reflecting the changing attitudes and prejudices of their time. As lexicographers, we must not only record the language, but also constantly examine the words we ourselves use to describe it.

With a dictionary the size and age of the OED, this is a momentous task. The first edition was compiled while the British Empire was at its height, and the mark of Victorian-era colonialism is evident in some of the defining language dating from the time. Certain terms that were used neutrally in the 19th and early-20th centuries are now considered unacceptable, particularly in the areas of ethnicity and disability. Work has been ongoing for many years to identify this content, often through the identification of key words – such as savage, coloured, non-white, aborigine, and oriental – leading to targeted revision of definitions containing these terms.  In some cases, it is possible to simply substitute one word for another, more up-to-date, term. However, other cases are more involved, requiring full revision of a definition or even an entire entry. As is often the case in dealing with ‘sensitive’ subject matter, the process of revision highlights related areas of concern, and each piece of focused work often leads to several follow-up projects. In addition, areas of sensitivity and their related vocabularies are constantly changing. This is something we must continually monitor and review in all of our dictionaries – not just the OED.

Oxford Languages has recently engaged a new Content Inclusivity Manager, who is focusing on improving the diversity and representation of all of our texts, including the OED. In collaboration with our lexicographers, the Content Inclusivity Manager has created a set of editorial guidelines to help guide this work in the future. Upcoming revision work will focus on the representation of women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, and those with disabilities, among others. Our aim is to ensure that the language we use in our definitions is as inclusive and neutral as possible, and to revise any discriminatory or stereotypical vocabulary. At the heart of this process is research and evidence – always the life blood of the OED. We are working to ensure that this evidence is inclusive and represents multiple perspectives, so that not just mainstream opinion is reflected, but that marginalized voices are heard too. This continued revision of the content of the OED ensures our users have the most accurate and up-to-date understanding of the terms included in our dictionaries.

However, we must also recognize that this work – like the proverbial painting of the Forth Bridge – will never be complete. While we revise the words of our predecessors, we must remain aware that the language we use today carries its own cultural assumptions and prejudices. In time the paint will blister and crack and begin to show its age, and a new set of lexicographers will step into our shoes, paintbrushes raised, ready to put right what we have done.

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.