Varieties of English: World English and the OED

Varieties of English: World English and the OED

An important part of our work on the New Words side of the OED project is to increase our coverage of vocabulary from the major varieties of world English. We are very fortunate to be able to use as the basis of our research a number of comprehensive regional dictionaries, such as the Australian National Dictionary, the Dictionary of New Zealand English, the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles, and the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Of course we cannot include every word covered in these regional dictionaries, and have to make a decision – as with all new entries – based on the amount of available quotation evidence. Quotations that we find in regional dictionaries are backed up by examples from our Reading Programme, which includes a texts from all over the English-speaking world, as well as newspapers and magazines contributed partly by members of staff in branches of Oxford University Press world-wide. These are further supplemented by suggestions and contributions from interested members of the public and by research in electronic newspaper archives and similar databases.

Many of the resulting words (as well as some of the earliest of this type documented in the first edition of the OED) describe flora and fauna, and it is interesting to see how many words originating in British English have travelled across the seas to be applied to a different species in a new land: compare, for example, the British magpie with the unrelated, but similarly coloured Australian birds of the same name.

Slang words tend to start life quite specific to a certain variety of English, nowadays often subsequently becoming more widely used via film and television. Some regional slang words making their debut in OED Online are (from North America) marble orchard, a cemetery, (from Australia) mail, information, rumour, and (from the U.S. Military) Maggie’s drawers, ‘a red flag used to indicate a miss in target practice’. For U.S. and Australian slang in particular, we have a number of useful dictionaries which we regularly consult to check currency and find new examples. Some curious facts emerge from our research: why, for example, is a linen department in a shop sometimes called a Manchester department in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, but not apparently elsewhere?

The most prolific contributor of new vocabulary to the English language is, unsurprisingly, American English. Looking at the update of MARCIATON-MASSYMORE recently published in the New Edition online, we find about 70 entries which are labelled ‘U.S.‘ or ‘orig. U.S.‘, as well as a further ten or so designated chiefly, or wholly ‘N. Amer.‘ in the OED Second Edition. In comparison, the segment of the First Edition of the OED dealing with this range shows us roughly 20 entries for specifically American terms (not all explicitly labelled at this time as such) many of which were cited from the then recently published Century Dictionary, or from various editions of Webster’s. When the OED was originally compiled resources were less abundant and the editors relied heavily on contributions received as a result of their appeal for readers in the ‘English-speaking and English-reading public in Great Britain, the Americas, and the British Colonies’. As it turned out, the American readers were eventually set to work on much the same material as those in Britain, and it was left to a few prolific contributors such as Albert Matthews of Boston to provide examples of more specifically American usage.

The only other examples of vocabulary specific to a particular regional English in the First Edition of the OED in this range are a sense of marrow-pudding labelled West Indian, and Australian uses of martin and Mary. By contrast, the New Edition online brings us over 30 entries from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the Caribbean, and South Africa, in addition to those from the United States noted above. This is as much a measure of how these Englishes have grown and settled into very distinctive varieties over the last century as it is of the vast increase in resources available to today’s editors of the OED.

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