The OED’s latest exercise in crowdsourcing

The OED’s latest exercise in crowdsourcing

From its very beginnings the Oxford English Dictionary has benefited enormously from crowdsourcing; in fact histories of crowdsourcing often cite it as one of the first projects to make extensive use of the technique. And now the Dictionary has launched its latest appeal to the public: this time for help with finding antedatings for entries in the range M-R.

The current programme of revising the OED – with the objective of creating the third edition of the Dictionary – got underway in the 1990s, starting (for reasons which were explained in the 2000 Preface to the Third Edition) at the letter M, and moving gradually forward as far as R. However, when the work started, the range of digital resources available to the lexicographers was extremely limited: in fact ‘online’ resources hardly existed in the modern sense. The last couple of decades have seen a boom in the range of online databases and resources available to both the scholar and the curious amateur alike. With online versions of early English texts and facsimiles of historical newspapers, there are so many more places where evidence for the history of a word can be found – and where it wasn’t possible to look at the time when the earliest entries were being revised. This means that for entries in M-R there’s a good chance of being able to improve on the dates of our earliest quotations by searching in these databases: databases such as EEBO (Early English Books Online) and Google Books.

The resources to allow a complete recheck of all these databases are simply not available at the moment: the OED’s lexicographers are fully occupied with other aspects of work on the Dictionary. But this is where crowdsourcing can come in! In early May the OED launched a new campaign to get the public involved in helping to update the Dictionary by looking in some of these resources for antedatings; we started with the letter M, the appeal has now been broadened to include N, and eventually we plan to invite contributions for any entry in the range M-R. People can contribute the quotations they find either by filling in a form on the appeal webpage, or by tweeting them using the hashtag #oedantedatings.

And the response so far has been impressive: there is clearly real enthusiasm for the project. Providing the evidence that extends the recorded history of a word – even by only a few years – is something that I and my colleagues find very satisfying, and it’s good to find that so many other people do too. Hundreds of antedatings have already been sent in; here are a few highlights.

  • masculinity: antedated from 1748 to 1571
  • Munro-bagger (a climber who ‘collects’ the high peaks known as Munros): antedated from 1956 to 1910
  • monkess (a nun): antedated from 1729 to 1602 (a contribution from former OED researcher Christian Munk, who clearly misses his old job – he’s sent in numerous monk-related antedatings!)
  • Macaronesia (a region including the Canary Islands): antedated from 1917 to 1878
  • macular (referring to maculae or sunspots): antedated from 1826 to 1686
  • meaningless: antedated from 1796 to 1728

And possibly the most impressive find so far in terms of number of years:

  • master furrow, antedated from 1649 to 1370.

Keep them coming! And why not have a go yourself?

Can you help the OED and its readers by conducting some linguistic detective work? Learn more about the OED antedatings appeal.

Header image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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.