Aims and findings

The OED’s authority as a history of the development of English vocabulary from 1150 or so onwards is based on its collection of quotation evidence. The importance of the role played by quotations was fully recognized by the original editors themselves. Reflecting on their achievement in the Preface to the re-issue of the first edition of the OED in 1933, the editors described its ‘basis’ as ‘a collection of some five millions of excerpts from English literature of every period’, forming ‘the only possible foundation for the historical treatment of every word and idiom which is the raison d’être of the work’. Furthermore – a reference to the role the OED played in the establishment of a tradition of European historical lexicography – it was ‘a fact everywhere recognized that the consistent pursuit of this method has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography’.1

Quotations remain the basis of the OED today, as it undergoes its first major revision since original publication. Hundreds of thousands of newly sourced excerpts from texts from Old English to the present are now being added to the record. It is clear that these along with other changes are transforming the OED’s representation of the history of vocabulary in English.

EOED’s principal aim since its inception in 2005, therefore, has been to examine the OED’s quotations in order to understand the quality and characteristics of the information it provides – both today, and at the various stages the work has been published since 1884. In particular, the project has attempted

  • to describe and evaluate the Dictionary’s preferences (whether conscious or unconscious) for documenting the history of the language from certain types of quotation sources rather than others, and
  • to assess the use of the quotations made by the editors in writing definitions and providing editorial commentary.

EOED is crucially dependent on electronic searching of the OED’s data. This has been possible since 1989, when the second edition of the OED was published both in hard copy and in electronic format. However, electronic analysis of OED has become more difficult since 2010, when the OED Online website introduced changes making it impossible to distinguish between revised and unrevised dictionary entries when searching its database. In turn, this has made it hard to use the evidence locked away in OED’s successive editions – its variable treatment of words relating to knowledge and culture of all kinds – to map corresponding changes in linguistic and cultural history more generally.

The 2010 changes to the OED website also obscured the Dictionary’s own history as a linguistic and cultural entity over a period of great change, from the early 1860s to the present day (see further Re-launched OED Online).

Notwithstanding the 2010 website changes, EOED’s findings show unequivocally that

  • the OED’s period coverage has been and continues to be uneven. Notably, the 18th century is under-represented both in the original edition of the Dictionary (OED1, published 1884-1928) and in the current version (OED Online, a composite mixture of new, revised and unrevised entries which changes every quarter)
  • individual literary male authors (e.g. Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Dickens, or, more recently, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence) are quoted far more often than any other single-authored sources. Quotations from some of these authors (e.g. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Joyce) have been increasing as the revision progresses
  • over OED’s history, many entries for terms relating to areas of cultural change (sexuality, gender, the body, race, class, nationalism, religion, and so on) have not been treated in accordance with the principle of descriptivism prevailing elsewhere in the Dictionary. Words or senses for which quotation evidence existed have been omitted, or have been defined euphemistically and/or in terms departing from lexicographical neutrality. The OED3 revision is gradually identifying and re-casting these entries.

These preferences and characteristics reflect the scholarly assumptions and practices predominant at the time at which entries were originally written – sometimes over a hundred years ago – or since revised. They also reflect the historical circumstances under which the OED has been compiled and the technological and economic resources available to the lexicographers. For example, changes in the law since 1884, as well as changes in social attitudes, have affected ways in which terms related to sexuality and gender have been tackled in the OED, while the electronic revolution has transformed editorial procedures from the late 1980s onwards.

EOED’s investigation of these findings and their implications is summarized at EOED content. You may also find the Site map and search feature (top right of page) useful. Each of the main section headings in the horizontal menu at the top of the screen (Quotations, Literary sources, Topics, OED editions, Historical Background, and Photos) can be clicked on to view a list of respective contents.

Footnote

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Footnotes

  1. OED1 (1933), vol 1: v.