Collecting the evidence

One of the guiding principles of historical lexicography is that entries should be based on the ‘real’ facts of the language, drawn principally from examples illustrating contemporary usage over the centuries. By analysing this information, the dictionary’s editors are able to form a picture of the development and gradual shift in meaning of each word.

The OED has a number of different ways of collecting information of this sort:

  1. running directed and voluntary reading programmes
  2. analysing the content of published historical dictionaries, especially ones written to describe a variety of English
  3. searching through large databases of historical and modern text
  4. asking for and responding to contributions from the public

Nowadays most of the data that arrives at the OED‘s offices has been captured in electronic form. But handwritten letters still arrive from time to time, and their contents are stored in the dictionary’s quotation files.

Different reading programmes for different types of text

The OED has always used the results of targeted reading programmes as a major source of evidence. Reading programmes are particularly useful for isolating new usages, and for collecting evidence which is not readily available on online databases.

  • The OED‘s UK and North American Reading Programmes, which collect millions of quotations from all over the English-speaking world, are the principal sources of evidence for words used in contemporary English.

For these reading programmes, readers scrutinize texts such as novels, poetry, magazines, newspapers, scientific journals, television scripts, etc., mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. They look for examples of new words, but also for good, quotable examples of older words. Each word they find is then keyed, with a line or two of surrounding context, into the OED‘s reference database, which is used by all Oxford dictionaries in their selection of new entries.

Recent texts ‘read’ include: Art Quarterly, Ultra Fit, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and many others … David Starkey’s Henry: virtuous prince (2008), Simon Armitage’s Gig: the life and times of a rock-star fantasist (2008), Una McGovern’s Lost Crafts: rediscovering traditional skills (2008), Ian Thomson’s Dead Yard: a story of modern Jamaica (2009), Jane Struthers’ Red Sky at Night (2009) – etc., etc.

  • The OED‘s Historical Reading Programme examines older texts for words not previously recorded in the OED, and for earlier examples of words already in the Dictionary.

The readers of the HRP look mainly at texts not available to the editors of the original OED, such as diaries and collections of letters. They write out slips by hand in the traditional way, or key directly on to laptops, often in the library where the text is held.

Examples of texts recently read (with examples) include:

  • The Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts (1640-61: in progress) – (e.g. in the entries for oak, oak leaf, pulpitize, reinvade, amongst others)
  • George Starkey’s Pyrotechny asserted and illustrated to be the surest and safest means for arts triumph over natures infirmities (1658) – (crystallize, fixed nitrate, and reunite)
  • Isaac Newton’s Correspondence (conserve, rectilinear, reflect)
  • Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia, containing the narrative of a balloon excursion from Chester (1786) (not yet cited from this reading programme)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Collected Letters (psychogony, quincuncial, prolixly)
  • Henry William Soltau’s The Tabernacle of Israel: its holy furniture and vessels (1850) (not yet cited)

  • The OED‘s Scholarly Reading Programme addresses secondary, rather than primary texts. It concentrates on books and articles about language, or about particular words, and by this means brings into the dictionary’s files new facts and discoveries about English made by other scholars.

Examples of articles read by the SRP recently include:

  • Eric A. Anchimbe, “Local Meaning in the Language of West Africa” in English Today, 22, no. 2, April 2006, 50-54.
  • Isabel Diaz and Antonio Lillo, “‘Betty Boop’s Ready!’ – Some Aspects of South African Rhyming Slang” in English Today, 18, no. 2, April 2002, 21-27.
  • Jacqueline Hill, “The Language and Symbolism of Conquest in Ireland, c. 1790-1850” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 18 (2008), 165-186.
  • Lynda Mugglestone, “‘Decent Reticence’: Coarseness, Contraception, and the First Edition of the OED” in Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 28 (2007), 1-22.

Historical dictionaries: standing on the shoulders of giants

Many historical dictionaries have been produced (and others are still being prepared) which are based on the principles of the OED. Typically, they provide a thorough coverage of a particular variety of English, whether based on a chronological period of the language (such as Middle English), a region in which English is spoken (such as New Zealand), a specific subject area (e.g. baseball), or some other aspect of the language.

Material from these dictionaries is an invaluable resource for OED editors, who review the contents of these remarkable volumes before embarking on their own work. The dictionaries listed here form just a small subset of all those that have been produced, and are mentioned for illustrative purposes only.

  • Chronological dictionaries: amongst the best known of these are the Dictionary of Old English (University of Toronto: 1986-), and the Middle English Dictionary (University of Michigan: 1954-2001). These are invaluable guides for the period of the language which they treat: both cover words such as about, adder, and, and apple (revised in the OED), and the Middle English Dictionary also covered words which do not stretch back in time to the Old English period, such as power, practice, praise, and prance.
  • Regional dictionaries: the OED maintains a continuous two-way traffic with many regional dictionaries, especially as these typically have a strong historical flavour. Amongst this set of dictionaries are:English Dialect Dictionary (London, Oxford, NY: 1898-1905)

    Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (Univ. Chicago Press: 1937-2002)

    Scottish National Dictionary (Edinburgh: 1927-76)

    Dictionary of American Regional English (Harvard Univ. Press: 1985-)

    Dictionary of Americanisms (Oxford Univ. Press: 1951)

    Dictionary of American English (Univ. Chicago Press: 1938-44)

    Australian National Dictionary (Oxford Univ. Press: 1988)

    Dictionary of Canadianisms (Gage: 1967)

    Dictionary of New Zealand English (Oxford Univ. Press: 1997)

    Dictionary of South African English (Oxford Univ. Press: 1996)

    Readers are encouraged to consult these dictionaries for further information about details of regional vocabulary and usage, as each contains material that is more detailed (as regards the particular variety of English) than that published in the OED.

  • Subject dictionaries: examples of the many specialist subject dictionaries published include:Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge: 1937 and later editions)

    Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Random House: 1994-)

    Peter Davies’s Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms (London: 1993)

    Paul Dickson’s Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Facts on File: 1989 and later editions)

    Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford Univ. Press: 2007)

The OED has provided much of the raw materials for many of these dictionaries in the past, and is now able to make use of their findings to enhance its own entries.

Databases: mining new caverns of English

One of the most remarkable changes in the world of historical lexicography since the 1980s and 1990s has been the proliferation of large-scale, searchable databases of historical text. It is now possible to search much of the raw data of lexicography from one’s pc or laptop (whether one is an OED editor or a general researcher).

It is invidious, as usual, to select particular databases, but some of the oldest and most valuable databases for lexical research include (many accessible on a subscription-only basis):

  • Early English Books Online
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online
  • Times Digital Archive
  • British Newspapers 1800-1900
  • Google Books

This change has had far-reaching effects for historical lexicography, dramatically improving the quality of documentary evidence available to editors. As a result, it is possible to have more confidence in the reliability of lexical documentation than it was in the past.

Largely as a result of the availability of this data, OED editors have moved from being able to antedate roughly 30% of the words and senses of the dictionary in 2000 to (now) providing earlier attestations for around 60% of all words and senses in the dictionary.

Contributions: words from the Democratic Republic of English Worldwide

Beginning in 1859 the OED has appealed to the public for information about words, and since then the general public (as well as scholars and researchers) have been generous in their contributions to the dictionary.

Recent additions to the dictionary from public contributions:

atom bomb: back from 1945 to 1920 (referring to H. G. Wells)

meet-and-greet (as a noun): back from 1981 to 1960

Molly dancer: back from 1903 to 1881

pork-barrelling: back from 1941 to 1921, and then further back to 1910

Each week more material for the dictionary arrives by letter at the OED‘s offices, or electronically through the OED Online‘s submission form. This data is filtered into the dictionary electronic files or physical quotation cabinets. Every piece of information stored is available to the editors when they come to revise their entries or to add new words to the dictionary. We don’t take kindly to the suggestion that evidence could be thrown away!

The next stage in the editorial process is the sorting of the material that has been collected.

Sorting of quotations

Back to top