Chronological coverage in OED2 and OED3: new scholarship or old?

EOED has just completed its series of pages on the OED’s treatment – both past and present – of different periods in the language. The series starts at Period coverage

Here is a summary of the main points.

  • The OED3 revision (begun in 2000, now about halfway through the alphabet) is adding enormous quantities of new quotations to its predecessors’ record of the language. Quotations form the evidential basis for the OED, so this increase indicates that the Dictionary’s account of the English language – on both a large and small scale – is changing significantly
  • Unfortunately, we cannot see which these new quotations are! This is because the OED website searches do not differentiate between revised and original entries. Instead, however, we can count up the total of quotations per decade in the current hybrid version of the OED, OED Online (i.e. a mixture of old and new scholarship), and compare the results with the equivalent totals in the pre-revision version of the OED (i.e. OED2)
  • Comparison of this sort tells us that, very broadly speaking, over 1500-1989, the revised OED appears to be reproducing the chronological biases of the old OED (click on the link to Chart 3 in the right-hand image below). So there is a bulge of quotations over the late 16th/early 17th centuries (Chart 8), a dip in quotation evidence in the early to mid-18th-century (Chart 13), and a steep rise towards the 1880s or so (Chart 19). 20th-century coverage is more uneven (Charts 21 and 37)
  • In a decisive departure from the practice of the first edition of OED, OED3 is no longer gathering huge numbers of quotations from major literary and cultural writers as evidence for the history of vocabulary in English. Instead, the revising lexicographers are raiding vast electronic databases of multi-authored sources for its new quotations – newspapers, journals, and periodicals. See discussions at Top sources in OED3, 1800-1929 in OED3, 1930 onwards in OED3
  • Notwithstanding this changed practice, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Caxton, Dryden, Dickens and hundreds of other male literary canonical writers continue to dominate the list of most quoted sources in today’s OED. This is because the OED3 has simply retained much of the original OED1 quotation evidence rather than archiving the original Dictionary and starting again. In this respect, the OED3 revision is producing a 21st-century dictionary bolted onto a Victorian one (click on links above and Which edition contains what?
  • As a result, women writers remain significantly under-represented in the OED. As of the June 2020 update, OED Online’s own list of top 1,000 quotation sources includes just 28 women. It is impossible to search OED quotations by gender of author, but inferentially the vast majority of contributors to the newspapers, journals and periodicals that OED3 is now favouring as quotation sources will also be male. On OED’s under-quotation of female sources, see further 1700-1899 in OED3 (Chart 14 and the discussion of Frances Burney beneath; Caroline Herschel and Philosophical Transactions) and information on the top individually-authored sources from 1930 onwards in OED3. Preliminary evidence and notes can also be found at Top female sources, currently in preparation. EOED’s 2009 study of the under-representation of 18th-century women writers (funded by the Leverhulme) is under Topics.

To read more, click on the pages below

Period coverage

1150-1499 in OED1/2

1150-1499 in OED3

1500-1699 in OED1/OED2

1500-1699 in OED3

1700-1799 in OED1/OED2

1700-1799 in OED3

1800-1929 in OED1/OED2

1800-1929 in OED3

1930-1989 in OED2

1930 onwards in OED3

Last updated on 14 July 2020