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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow OED editions, updates and revisions arrow Changes to unrevised OED2
Changes to unrevised OED2
Changes to original OED2 text
The previous page describes the potential problems for users consulting the re-launched OED Online, owing to its mixture of old and new lexicography. A further complication arises where the unrevised dictionary entries are concerned. When users look up a word in OED Online today which has not yet been revised, they see a screen with material which is not, in fact, identical with that of its apparent source, OED2. This can cause confusion in trying to understand how entries have been changed between different editions and versions of OED. The changes are of three main kinds (the second two perhaps more immediately interesting than the first, but all important). Click on the links for more detailed information.
  1. Pervasive bibliographical updating, i.e. of unrevised as well as revised sections of the Dictionary
  2. Removal of usage symbols which indicated potentially prescriptive lexicographical judgements
  3. Occasional re-writing of definitions and other material which is now offensive, euphemistic, or otherwise unacceptable for a 21st century readership: see next page's Case-study of catamite
1. Bibliographical changes
In re-launching its website in December 2010, OED updated bibliographical details for all entries in the Dictionary, including those it had not yet revised, so unrevised entries in OED3 now cite the same sources as OED3, even though these sources are not in all cases bibliographically consistent with original OED2 quotations: for example, dates assigned to authors have occasionally been changed, and sometimes the actual editions too.

This pervasive re-dating can produce startling changes in the way that evidence is presented. In previous versions of OED, the figurative use of ambitious ('erecting itself, as if aspiring to rise; rising, swelling, towering') is recorded as first used in 1601 by Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar (i.iii.7): 'I haue seeme Th'ambitious Ocean swell', followed by Ben Jonson in 1605 (Volpone). In OED3's as yet unrevised entry, the same quotation evidence is presented, but with the order reversed: Jonson is now listed as the first user with Shakespeare the second - the reason being that the re-launched OED3 has uniformly re-dated all Julius Caesar quotations to a1616, the date of Shakespeare's death.
Why? The reasoning would seem to be as follows (no explanation has been offered on the website). As explained above, much of the content of OED2 was itself derived, unchanged, from OED1. In consequence, most of OED's bibliographical references and sources, along with its quotations, cited editions and scholarship which (though authoritative in the Victorian and Edwardian periods when the first edition was compiled) have long since been out-of-date and/or cited in different and inconsistent forms (for some examples go to our archived page on OED2 here). Many of these editions have been updated and re-edited during the course of the last century (or more recently), and OED3 in its new entries has tried to be as consistent as possible in citing the most up-to-date and authoritative sources for its quotations, in each case using the same forms (giving author names in full rather than in varying abbreviated versions, e.g.). The 2010 website re-launch has aimed for bibliographical consistency across the online OED, in both revised and unrevised entries - hence even the unrevised entries have been bibliographically updated, however unhistorical this might seem.

2. Removal of usage symbols
Dates are not the only things that have been changed in the unrevised entries on OED Online. OED1, the 1972-86 Supplement, and OED2, all used a special symbol to indicate  'catachrestic or erroneous' usages on the one hand (the paragraph mark,) and foreign words on the other (2 small vertical lines, known as 'tramlines',║). These have been removed from the unrevised entries, sometimes along with accompanying text (e.g. s.v. altogether) and sometimes not (e.g. s.v. exceed sense 7; tontine sense 3). The original text, with symbols intact, can be seen if one clicks on 'previous version' in the central column on the page - though as already stated, entries cannot be cumulatively searched in this form. These changes are understandable, since they are in line with OED3's move towards much more truly descriptive lexicography than can be found in any of the previous versions of the Dictionary. Nevertheless, the removal of these signs of lexcographical bias sits uneasily beside the preservation of many hundreds of out-of-date definitions exhibiting comparable bias (e.g. the current OED Online definition of dialect as 'one of the subordinate forms or varieties of a language', which reproduces unchanged an entry originally published in 1885). 

3. Occasional re-writing of definitions etc
As mentioned elsewhere on the EOED site (e.g. here, in discussion of the implications of the recent removal of OED2 from the OED Online website), successive printed versions of the OED constitute an invaluable historical record of cultural attitudes at different stages of the Dictionary's composition. Definitions, for example, often reveal attitudes towards cultural phenomena that have changed in significant ways between the late 19th and early 21st centuries, and constitute important evidence for those changes.

Much of this evidence remains intact in the unrevised OED Online entries, most of which, in reproducing the text of OED2 (1989), in fact reproduce that of OED1 - i.e. the first edition of the Dictionary published between 1884 and 1928. However, the re-launched OED Online has silently re-written some of the text in (what seem to be) a small number of OED2 entries, apparently to remove euphemistic inexplicitness, or now-unacceptable cultural bias. 

One example is the entry for catamite, discussed in more detail on the next page as an individual case study.
OED Online's definition of the term catamite, in an entry labelled as that of the second edition of 1989, now (December 2011) reads

A boy kept for homosexual practices; the passive partner in anal intercourse.

Four quotations are supplied. Although the first implies that a catamite is comparable to a 'shameful baggage', none gives any precise indication of what the word means:
  1. 1601: ' Called Cinedopolis, by reason of certain Catamites and shamefull baggages that king Alexander the Great left there', from Philemon Holland's translation of Pliny's Natural History
  2. 1627: 'His smooth-chind‥Catamite', from Drayton
  3. 1699: 'Agatho himself‥was a Catamite', from Bentley, and
  4. 1822: 'A certain young man‥a common catamite', from Thomas Taylor's translation of Apuleius's Golden Ass 
(In quotations 2-4, the two dots indicate excised text from the quotation which does not affect the sense of the lemma).

Despite the label, however, this is not in fact the text of OED2's entry for catamite. On the contrary, OED2's entry (which reproduces unchanged the entry of OED1) has a definition reading

A boy kept for unnatural purposes

and the last of the four quotations - though identical with that in the OED Online entry - is assigned a date of 1795, though quoted from an edition of 1822; OED Online has updated in line with the policy discussed under Bibliographical changes above.[1]

No warning is given to the user that the definitional text has been changed. Even the most loyal OED observer has to conclude that this is questionable scholarly practice, not least since (as discussed on the next page) the history of OED's treatment of catamite and related terms constitutes valuable evidence for attitudes to male homosexuality over the last 120-odd years.

[1]The first-edition editors quoted from the 1822 edition of Taylor's translation of Apuleius (as noted in OED1 and OED2), but assigned the earlier date as being that of the first edition. The OED3 revisers have checked the 1795 text to discover that it contains only an extract from Apuleius's Metamorphoses, in which the word catamite does not occur. A search on ECCO reveals that the word was widely used in the eighteenth century and was also explicitly treated in at least one dictionary: Cocker's English Dictionary of 1704, whose definition reads 'a boy hired to be used contrary to nature, for Sodomy'.
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