The ‘OED’ has had its own website since 2000; some of the old slips, featuring definitions and citations, from the dictionary’s archive © Thom Atkinson

Look for a topical expression in the Oxford English Dictionary and you may find it is older than you think. “Phone-hacking”, for example, was first used in the early 1980s. Americans have been worrying about “fiscal cliffs” of one kind or another for more than 50 years. And the desire for an “Arab spring” goes back to at least 1975 – or longer in the case of cyclists, for whom the term was coined in the late 19th century to denote a component in the suspension of saddles.

Words need a bit of a track record to make it into the OED. Once there, the rule is that they never come out, with obsolescence marked, instead, by dagger symbols sprinkled like memento mori through its pages. In general, the lexicographers look for evidence of at least 10 years’ use, though they do break this rule occasionally: “tweet” in its Twitter sense is included despite only having been around since 2006; the more recent “trending”, however, is not. “It’s on the back burner,” says Craig Leyland, a member of the new words team. “If it keeps being used in the same way, then it will most likely be going in.”

The OED, which this month experiences a rare change in leadership, is different from other English dictionaries. Most obviously, it is much, much bigger. The first edition, published in 10 instalments between 1884 and 1928, defined more than 400,000 words and phrases; by 1989, when two further supplements of 20th-century neologisms were combined with the original to create the second, this had risen to some 600,000, with a full word count of 59m. Once the monumental task of revising and updating that last (and possibly final) printed incarnation is complete, the third edition is expected to have doubled in overall length.

Lexicography, unlike journalism, is a field in which deadline extensions can occasionally be justified. James Murray (1837-1915), the indefatigable editor who oversaw much of the first edition, was originally commissioned to produce a four-volume work within a decade; after five years, he had got as far as the word “ant”. Similarly, the lexicographers toiling behind the neoclassical columns at the Oxford University Press, the dictionary’s home and publisher, have been forced gradually to extend their horizons. When work began on OED3 in the mid-1990s, it was meant to be complete by 2010. Today, they are roughly a third of the way through and Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor, estimates that the job won’t be finished for another 20 years.

Proffitt arrived at the OED in 1989, when the lexicographers did not have computers on their desks and new definitions were written up by hand. Not everything has changed. Walking through its hushed offices I am struck that “slips” of the kind on which Murray relied, solicited from a global network of volunteer readers in one of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing, are still to be found on most surfaces. But these days the boxes of copperplate citations are consulted only to complement the vast digital archives that have opened up over the past 20 years.

Most significant of the changes made under John Simpson, chief editor from 1993 until his retirement last month, was the launch of the OED website in 2000. “I think the best decision was the one to publish as we were revising,” says Proffitt. “It meant, in practical terms, that we could create an online presence and bring in subscription revenue. At that time it was by no means obvious – there were other projects that took a different path.”

OED revenues are not public but it is no secret that they are far from the level required to pay for its work. Hundreds of outside readers and consultants are employed by the dictionary in addition to its 75 lexicographers in Oxford, with basic costs of around £4m a year that do not include sales, marketing and technology services. Its value to the publisher’s brand, however, is incalculable – as are the benefits of its scholarship for the OUP’s smaller dictionaries of current usage.

Proffitt declares himself neutral on the question of whether the OED’s third edition will exist in print (Nigel Portwood, OUP chief executive, said in 2010 that he considered it unlikely). But it is when talking about online initiatives that the new chief editor becomes most animated; he predicts more linking to specialist dictionaries and more involvement in projects such as Poetry by Heart, a verse reciting competition for 14- to 18-year-olds that draws on the OED to elucidate difficult historical terms. He talks also of the potential to embed OED content in ereaders so the meaning of a word such as “plisky” (a trick or an awkward situation) in Wuthering Heights (1847), not found in most dictionaries of current usage, could be revealed to the reader as he or she went along.

At first, revision progressed in alphabetical order, starting at “m” to accommodate the learning curve of Murray himself; the idea was that by the time the current team went back to the earlier, patchier letters it would have built up the experience to compensate. Then, in 2007, as they passed “r”, the editors changed tack. “I’d been struck by the fact that if we’d stayed in alphabetical sequence it would be decades before we revised the entry for ‘computer’, for example – it seemed a bit odd,” says Proffitt. “The other thing we could do was see what entries people were searching for. They were going to be disappointed if they looked at ‘computer’ in another 20 years and discovered it unchanged.”

© Thom Atkinson

It is a reminder that the OED, for all its majesty, is a patchwork of old and new. While only a third of the dictionary has been revised so far, thanks to the lexicographers picking off obvious candidates, the unrevised entries don’t seem to represent two-thirds of the dictionary. Yet it can still come as a surprise to browse through recent additions such as “ohmigosh”, “ooh-wee” and “splosh” (tea) and then find the term that might encompass them all, “slang”, defined sternly in its first sense as “the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character”.

Concern at the rising influence of the low and disreputable has, of course, been a constant theme in discussion of the state of English since long before Murray’s day, and it shows no sign of letting up. In general, the OED’s warnings that this or that expression might be “often considered irregular” are unlikely to satisfy those who rail against, say, the misuse of “literally” and “disinterested”. The use of the latter to mean “uninterested” is, in fact, the original sense, first attributed to John Donne in the OED, though it had been deemed obsolete by Murray. Later WH Auden, a mischievous presence at the fringes of the dictionary who made a habit of plundering daggered words for his poetry and then lobbying on their behalf, pleaded its case with the editor of the second supplement. The note, “often regarded as a loose use”, was added but to little effect; today those using “disinterested” to suggest detachment seem increasingly doomed to the looks of incomprehension that would greet an instance of “impertinent” in its original sense (“† 1. Not appertaining or belonging (to); unconnected, unrelated; inconsonant”).

I ask Proffitt whether he laments the disappearance of such distinctions. He laughs: “No, I can’t lament language change – it keeps me in work. The OED has always maintained a purely descriptive line, it doesn’t legislate against categories of vocabulary.” But could the act of selection itself be a form of prescription? Are there, I ask, no unconscious biases you might be bringing to bear? “All dictionaries show their age, they’re the product of the time in which they’re written, and that will affect the current edition in the same way as the earlier editions. But the reason we’re revising it is to make it a 21st-century dictionary.”

Behind the updating and revising of the OED is another, much bigger story: the inexorable growth of English itself. At a conservative estimate, 1bn people now speak it as a second or foreign language, while the 375m for whom it is a mother tongue continue to mould their own varieties in ways that the dictionary’s original compilers could never have imagined. As such, the OED finds itself in the curious position of being a national institution called upon, almost by default, to assume the role of a global one.

At this point I should admit that I am not an entirely disinterested observer of these trends. I worked at the OED as a keyboarder for a few months after graduating in the mid-1990s, helping to input the fruits of the dictionary’s reading programme into a new database on which the lexicographers would draw.

The perceived deficiencies of the OED in terms of global and British vernaculars could be seen clearly in the steady stream of marked-up books that arrived on our desks: Trainspotting (1993), Irvine Welsh’s novel of Leith disaffection (radge n. “That’s the spirit Franco, Sick Boy slapped Begbie on the back, tryin tae encourage the radge, tae gie him mair rope so that he’ll come oot with another crass Begbie classic or two”), is one I remember distinctly but there were many more examples of fiction from the Caribbean, Africa, south Asia and former dominions.

“It is fair to say we see a language that’s being used with greater international spread,” says Philip Durkin, who this month moves from his role as principal etymologist at the OED to become one of two deputy chief editors. “There’s so much more evidence available from geographically far-flung English-speaking communities and if you’re looking at more technical vocabulary, then the users may not be first-language English speakers at all.”

© Thom Atkinson

This does not mean, as one might expect, that English is borrowing more from other languages today than it has in the past. “I think the significant factor is that English today is the primary language of scholarship and of many professions around the world, which makes it less receptive to new words in certain fields than it was a couple of hundred years ago, when French and German were major rivals, say, in the natural sciences.” He gives the example of the word “plastination”, coined by anatomist Gunther von Hagens and with a first OED citation from 1981. Though based in his native Germany at the time, he chose to use a form that didn’t stand out as a foreign word in English rather than the more distinctively German Plastinierung.

Perhaps most striking is the evidence of who is using the dictionary itself. The OED records 750,000 individual “sessions” each month, most of which come via institutions such as libraries, universities, NGOs and government departments. An individual annual subscription is expensive, £215 plus VAT, although in the UK most holders of a public library card can enjoy free access at home thanks to a deal struck with the Arts Council. The surprising thing, explains Judy Pearsall, editorial director for dictionaries in OUP’s global academic division, is that a quarter of these monthly visits are coming from outside what we think of as the English-speaking world.

In September, the US accounted for the single biggest group of users, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. At numbers five and six, however, are Germany and China. Readership from countries where English is not the first language is growing faster too – significant when you consider that the OED is determining its editorial priorities at least partly on the basis of traffic figures.

For those who study the dictionary, constant change has its costs. Charlotte Brewer, professor of English at Hertford College, Oxford, and author of Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED, stresses her admiration for the scholarship of the current generation of lexicographers but confesses to a certain apprehension every time she publishes on the subject, lest the next update render her points moot. In particular, she is critical of a decision in 2010 to merge the dynamic third edition with OED2, obscuring the differences between the two. “Because [OED2] was electronically searchable it was a fantastic source for historical inquiry of every sort, not just linguistic scholarship, but they’ve pulled the plug on it,” she says. “It makes you weep.”

Still, inconsistencies are probably going to be part of the OED for as long as there are people lamenting the change it records – the project is simply too big to be otherwise. And if the prescriptivists are right and English really is in decline, then I must take at least part of the blame. Looking tentatively for some of the words I typed into the system all those years ago, I find that Trainspotting is cited 51 times and even makes an appearance in the entry for “it”. The Financial Times is doing pretty well, too, with 44 first citations (including “quantitative easing”, “write-back” and, oddly, “lambada”) and an overall total of 1,396. Gaming the system isn’t easy, as Auden found, but who knows, there may be another example in this very piece. The idea, at least, is not impertinent to the discussion at hand.

Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor


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