Vowels are hard

Vowels are hard

Any lexicographer who has worked through the alphabet knows that words that begin with vowels are more complicated to edit (as a general rule) than words that begin with consonants. It might well be another lexicographical truism that entries last edited a hundred and thirty years ago also rate pretty high up on the difficulty register.

So this quarter’s range from affable to always (see the list of highlights on the right) qualifies on both counts. The range was included in the very first instalment of the OED (Aant) published in 1884 and has remained unchanged except for supplementary additions until now.

Sir James Murray had one of his very occasional changes of mind about this time. He decreed that African should not be included in the New English Dictionary (as the OED was called at the time), on the grounds that it wasn’t a general lexical item but a proper noun. But when he and his colleagues arrived – several months later – at American they had a re-think. This re-think was too late, though, for African, which had to wait for the OED Supplement of 1933 to come along before it was entered in the dictionary. The entry has grown since 1933 (when it consisted of about four inches of type), through the 1972 Supplement (another half column) to the extensive present entry for this barometer word, one which has changed with our global perspective over the last hundred years and more.

If you feel strong enough to investigate some of the more complex entries, try the three verbs spelt allege (to declare, to alleviate, and to offer up a prayer) or the twenty-three subsenses of allow. What does allow mean in this sentence from George Crabbe’s The Village (1783)?

His steady hand the straightest furrow made;
Full many a prize he won, and still is proud
To find the triumphs of his youth allow’d.

Not ‘permitted’, but ’praised’, in an old sense – now long forgotten – which reminds us that allow is derived from French louer and Latin laudare (to praise or laud).

And what about Ruskin’s sentence “It refuses to allow itself in any violent or ‘spasmodic’ passion” (1860). Look at the features of the verb: it’s transitive (it has a direct object); it’s used reflexively (the object is itself); it is used idomatically with ‘in’: so that makes it sense 12 ‘to indulge in’.

All of these are good examples of why we need historical dictionaries to unlock the language – and life – of the past. We forget how finally a meaning which was perfectly familiar to speakers only a hundred years ago can disappear from the language, with its place not always filled by a successor.

Further items of interest in the present Range of new and revised material: the relative spelling and usage of aluminium and aluminum; how much has the OED’s sci-fi web site helped with the definition and documentation of alien and related words; all right or alright?; why do around 90 of these newly revised entries refer to Arabic in their etymology (alchemy, algebra, almanac) and over fifty of these mention Spanish?; cookery helps to boost the à la expressions from French; for how long have we spoken about abcedarians (1614: a person who is learning the alphabet or who is engaged in elementary education) – and have we stopped?

Additions this time round?

  • “and that’s all she wrote”, with its note: ‘Probably originally in reference to the notion of a woman writing a letter to inform her husband or lover that their relationship was over; the phrase was likely popularized by its use in various songs of the 1940s (apparently earliest in Ernest Tubb’s 1942 song That’s all she wrote)’. 
  •  achoo: I’ve heard this described as ‘a cute word’. This is the kind of informal interjection for which lexicographers fall back on their defining formulas: “Representing the sound of a sneeze”. We plot it from 1843:

‘Leave off that sneezing, will you?’ ‘I really can’t—a—chew.’

And that example introduces you to the multifarious spelling with which we attempt to capture the sound:

  aitchoo, achew, achoo, ahchew, ahschoo, ahshoo, ahchoo, atchoo, aitshoo. 
 Scholars of such things will want to turn to the related entry atishoo (at issue is a different thing).

After last quarter’s retcon (retroactive continuity) we are pleased to introduce mocap (motion capture), defined as “a technique which allows movement to be recorded digitally; spec. one in which the movement of an actor is used to animate a computer-generated character in a film or video game”.

aisle: two very different figurative extensions of aisle emerged in the late 19th century. One, in the context of US politics, refers to the aisle dividing the Congressional chambers, and so is a metaphor for the separation of the two major US political parties (compromising politicians are referred to as “crossing the aisle”, for example). The other refers to the aisle in the centre of a church, and is used in phrases like “to walk down the aisle” to denote marriage.

In this year of the Olympics, we have managed to refrain from making this an ‘Olympic’ batch: in fact the words ‘Olympic’ and ‘Olympics’ do occur in reference to the ancient games. It’s unlikely, for example, that we will need an alytarch (an official responsible for maintaining order at Olympic Games) nowadays. But you’ll will also find various agon- words, from the general area of athletic or dramatic struggle or competition.

Some statistics for the online dictionary:

  • total number of words, meanings, compounds, and phrases – 870,047
  • total number of illustrative quotations – 3,261,207
  • 34% of the original OED2 entries are now published in their updated version.

See the full list of new words and meanings
Find out about new OED functionality in the September 2012 update

MOCAP image source: Wikimedia Commons

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