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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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Aims and findings
Using the electronic tools now available online, together with material available in the OED archives, we have begun to document and analyse the underlying editorial principles of the OED and the characteristics of its quotations. To try to establish the dictionary's preferences and biases in favour of some types of literature and language over others, we are engaged on pilot studies of two main areas:

  • OED's representation of eighteenth-century language
  • OED's representation of women authors

When these initial studies are complete, we will move on to investigate OED's representation of canonical 'great writers' such as Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Joyce, Auden and others. Were these the literary giants that have most contributed to the English language? Or were they the ones most favoured, for a variety of different reasons, by the lexicographers? What issues are involved in quoting from Auden and Joyce, themselves enthusiastic readers of OED? And from creative writers more generally? And how will the new edition of the OED treat all this material?

The preliminary material published on this website illustrates the nature of our findings so far. These are that the coverage by OED of different authors and periods varies enormously, in ways which may tell us as much about the lexicographers and the material available to them as about the language itself. To what extent is the expansion of vocabulary at the end of the sixteenth century due to the lexicographers' enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for example (who is quoted around 33,300 times, greatly in excess of any other single source)? Or the relative dip in the documentation of the eighteenth century to the failure of the American readers to deliver the slips they had promised? Do these two characteristics of OED documentation illustrate the variable ways in which the language has developed, or the vicissitudes to which OED lexicography was necessarily subject?

Exploring the quotations in OED helps us to understand the relationship between the lexicographers on the one hand and the English language on the other. Such exploration also identifies fruitful areas for further study: the relative lexical productivity of the innovative epistolary novelist, Samuel Richardson, or the characteristic vocabulary used by Pope in translating from Homer, or the contributions made to the language by twentieth-century female crime writers compared with those by more literary female authors.

These analyses of OED will, we hope, provide important linguistic and literary evidence to set beside independent scholarly surveys of individual writers, language usage and the rate at which new words came into the language. In addition, they will uncover valuable information for the current OED lexicographers, who are engaged on the first major revision of the dictionary since the first edition (published 1884-1928).
Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 March 2007 )
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