Reading Programmes: the art of reading for the OED

Reading Programmes: the art of reading for the OED

‘If we count it worth while to have all words, we can only have them by reading all books…drawing as with a sweep-net over the whole extent of English Literature…’

Richard Chenevix Trench, Philological Society, 1860, On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries

An evidence-based approach to lexicography requires evidence. From the Oxford English Dictionary’s inception, this has been supplied by recruits to its Reading Programmes, whose task is to read books (and other texts) and note down potentially interesting instances of word use. Without their work, the OED simply would not exist in the form it does.

Readers were initially recruited through a series of Appeals to the public, starting with the Philological Society’s 1857 Proposals for a Complete Dictionary of the English Language. And they have never stopped sending in quotations. But from 1957, the new OED Supplement had new goals: to monitor the development of modern English; widen the OED’s scientific and technical terms (increasingly part of everyday vocabulary); and to increase its coverage of World English. Such specific needs necessitated a more focused and directed reading programme.

What can the art of reading offer today’s OED?

Reading by numbers

Quotations supplied by readers added to the Third Edition:

– Over 200,000 quotations

– Over 8,000 first quotations

Today, selected online resources from Early English Books Online to Twitter are systematically searched, as each existing entry is prepared for updating, and each candidate for new entry is researched for potential addition.

But the material easily accessible online has its limitations – not the least of which, paradoxically, is its sheer volume. Larger online text databases (with search functionality suited to OED’s needs) often focus on published newspaper articles, periodicals, or novels, with standard British and American English predominating. In addition, some periods (for example, the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries) are comparatively under-resourced.

In selecting texts for their readers, Reading Programme managers seek to fill these gaps. We may choose a work for its exemplification of the English of a particular country or region; because it provides a rich seam of the vocabulary of a particular community or subject area; or because it offers an alternative register (for example personal letters and journals, or government or court records). In addition to its use in the OED’s illustrative quotation paragraphs, Reading Programme material also aids in the identification and contextualization of new words, and provides valuable information on frequency, collocation, etymology and variant spellings.

Today’s Reading Programmes

The UKRP now focuses its attention on recent British material. Our readers trawl through local and special interest magazines, novels, autobiographies, letters and diaries, to uncover new words and uses, especially those that originated within a particular region or social group, or that are associated with new cultural developments.

The SciRP was formally established in the 1980s, but the focused reading of scientific works for the OED began much earlier. Issues of New Scientist and Nature were read for the new Supplement; and new scientific terms added included jet engine, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and nuclear. Today, readers grapple with journals, magazines, and popular science books, covering the physical and life sciences, in addition to mathematics, medicine, and technical subjects. The development of new technologies and fields of inquiry means that the SciRP continues to provide new words and meanings to complement the dictionary’s existing scientific vocabulary.

The NARP was established in 1989 with aim of increasing the depth and breadth of OED’s coverage of North American English. Today, it covers a variety of American and Canadian texts, in particular from the 21st century, chosen specifically for their potential fruitfulness in yielding new words and meanings. They are also selected for the types of words and meanings they are likely to contain, with the chief aim of augmenting specific vocabularies across our dictionaries.

A NARP reader’s observation prompts the addition of this phrase to LEAVE, v1, published in September this year.

The HRP was first set up in 1994, with the goal of widening the OED’s coverage of Early Modern English; today its scope extends into the mid-twentieth century. Its principal goal is to find earlier examples of words or phrases already in the OED; however a significant number of new words and meanings also crop up. Many resources are available only in print libraries; but the recent explosion of digitization means that readers may now find themselves reading texts online.

The SRP was established alongside the HRP and NARP in 1994, and its readers concentrate on Middle English and Older Scots texts, and those written in regional varieties of English, including World Englishes. However, the primary focus of the SRP is to monitor academic journals, monographs, and glossaries to ensure that the dictionary keeps abreast of published research on the English language. This work feeds into many areas of the OED entry, from spelling history to regional distribution, from definitions to etymology.

D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary of Historical Documents from East Anglia (2003)
Thanks to this source (recently read for the SRP) we know that:
– Charles I could have warmed his bed with a HOT-WATER BOTTLE, n
– Gravy and sauce were already being served in a BOAT, n during the Wars of the Roses.
– The current spelling of MOP, n came into use in 1649—before then, it was customary to clean floors with a ‘map’.
– Our first evidence for CLOSET, n in the usual modern sense is dated 1532—before this, a closet was a small room, private chapel, or lavatory.

Our readers hail from different countries and various backgrounds and their connections with the OED were formed in diverse ways. But one thing they have in common is a sensitivity to the English language – an ability to spot a word being used for the first time, or in a new way, which the most advanced software cannot replicate.

Over the past 90 years, the Reading Programmes have taken many different forms. As they continue to evolve to meet changing needs and exploit new resources, one thing remains unchanged: the great debt owed by the OED to its many readers.

In their own words

In the blogs that follow, today’s readers discuss the texts they tackle, their approach to the task – and what it takes to be a reader for the OED.

Ruth Mateer, a reader for the UKRP, shares her thoughts on reading for the OED:

I have been reading for OED for a very long time, ever since the wife of an old student of mine in Edinburgh found me a place.

Reading for the dictionary, for me, means exploration and surprise. And I feel I am making a contribution, however small, to the sum of things. I also feel that I am using a long literary experience as a teacher and researcher.

I meet a lot of new subjects – most recently, the history of Islam, so I am instructed.  Or I meet new people through their letters, like Philip Larkin, or, more recently, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  And, of course, I meet new words, or I’m reminded of old words, all the time. I’ve just been reading two novels from Ireland, where I was born. It’s intriguing to see how the Irish are keeping the vocabulary of their own place, but are also drawing on other cultures, especially American.

I am looking forward to more people and more words.

Read the next post in the series with Science Programme reader Joy Winnington.

Header image: @andrewkuttler via Twenty20

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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.