September 2009: revision notes

September 2009: revision notes

Down to the ‘wire’: the latest OED updates

This quarter’s release of new and updated words for the OED addresses ten key words (clone, drug, face, global, image, Indian, skin, think, thought, and wire), along with the many other words which sit around them in the dictionary. In addition, another short run of R words is published (redrefulgent).

Wireless communication

When the original entry for wireless was published in the OED in 1926 it occupied five short paragraphs. The revised entry has over eighty. There are several reasons for this large increase. One is that the present revision of the dictionary is likely to find more space for important compounds (such as wireless mast, wireless network, and wireless operator) than did the first edition. Another is that by 1926 the OED editors were doubtless aware of the need to bring their work (eventually spanning the years 1884 until 1928) to a close, and so they sometimes conflated material which might otherwise have been treated more expansively. But the key factor lies in the history of the word itself.

In 1926 (according to the material then available to the editors) there was no such thing as ‘a wireless’ (= a radio receiving set). Wireless was a term that had been known for some thirty years, and especially through wireless telegraphy and wireless telephony. These were the years in which international news entered the public consciousness through newspaper reports based on cables and wireless telegrams; or, on a local scale, a young man would send his young lady a wireless telegram from the railway station to tell her to expect him later that evening. The wireless telegram was the mobile phone of its day. And yet the technology was allowed only three inches of type in the first edition of the OED.

‘Wireless’ technology remained important throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But from a linguist’s perspective it confronted some opposition from the slick appeal of ‘radio’ words. ‘Radio’ compounds date from the very end of the nineteenth century, and by the 1920s they were threatening the predominance of ‘wireless’. ‘Radio’ and ‘wireless’ jostled for position: the radio receiving set was called either ‘a wireless’ or ‘a radio’ in the 1920s. Fifty years later, ‘wireless’ was running out of steam, and ‘radio’ was dominant.

We counted down the demise of wireless, but we were mistaken. The term has been rescued by the mobile phone and the laptop computer, as the revised definitions show. Furthermore, the new wireless entry documents the many compounds attesting to its current vitality in the language: wireless access point, wireless LAN, wireless network, wireless technology, etc. The ups and downs of wireless are illustrated in detail in the new revised entry.

Contributions to the OED

Each week the OED receives proposed amendments, or suggestions for new entries, from a wide range of people. Most of these arrive online ( via the OED‘s web site. Here is a selection of some of the more memorable additions for the OED this quarter:

  • madrigal: an addition to the definition covering reference to early continental meanings of the word, for a type of song for one or more voices, and as a 14th-cent. Italian pastoral song typically of two or three stanzas with a long ritornello.
  • Pennsylvania Dutch adjective: “of, relating to, or designating the descendants of the 17th and 18th-cent. German and Swiss Protestant settlers of Pennsylvania”. The revised OED previously offered 1824 as the date for the first known evidence of this adjective. New findings show that the term dates back into the 18th century, and we now have an example (from the papers of the early American revolutionary politician and financier Robert Morris, at the Huntington Library) dated 1792.
  • Pluto (the name of the planet): the addition of the date of Venetia Burney’s death in 2009. Venetia was the ‘eleven-year-old English schoolgirl’ who in March 1930 suggested the name for the newly discovered planet.
  • prickshot: definition amended to “the distance over which an archer shoots an arrow at a fixed target or butt (in quot. perh. with imprecise reference)”, in the light of new evidence.
  • pupillometer: “a device or instrument for measuring the size of the pupil of the eye”. This had previously been dated in English from the Lancet of 1885. New information takes it back in 1864 in the British Medical Journal.

A new guide to etymology

This is perhaps a good place to mention the publication of the Oxford Guide to Etymology (written by the OED‘s Chief Etymologist, Dr Philip Durkin) on 23 July 2009. In the book, Dr Durkin investigates the principles of etymology with specific (but not exclusive) reference to English, illustrating his points with examples taken from his work on the current revision of the OED. Further details at:

Sarah Silverman and the OED

Earlier in the year reports started reaching us of a spoof OED ‘Word Induction Ceremony’ on America’s ‘Sarah Silverman Program’. See the Language Log for clips and commentary:

Nice try, but you haven’t worked out how we do it yet!

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.