Re-launched OED Online

In December 2010 OED Online was completely reconfigured, with major changes made to the appearance of the website, to its content and to its search tools. These changes transformed the Dictionary and the way that users are able to consult it.

Many of the new features improved on the old, and suggest exciting new ways to access and search the vast quantities of information stored in the OED – and some of these are discussed on the following pages. One of the most significant changes introduced in the re-launch, however, was the removal of OED2 from the OED Online website. As a result, it is now no longer possible to search, or consult systematically in any way, the previous version of the OED, the second edition of 1989. The consequence of this – presumably unintended – is a major loss of transparency: users can no longer track the progress of the current revision or identify the changes the third-edition revisers are now making to lexicographical principle and practice.

No account of this change appears on the website itself.1 Read the Introduction to our review of the current version of the site further down this page, or click on one of the headings below to go straight to a description of one of the features or changes. It should be noted that the re-launched website is continually changing in a process of updating, revision and addition: so the following pages, originally written in December 2011 and now updated, should be regarded as a snapshot of OED Online as at August 2018.

Note: the pages in OED Online’s ‘About’ section (https://public.oed.com/about/), containing explanatory material, are not dated, nor previous versions archived and made available to public view, so it is sometimes hard to be sure which new features and articles appeared when.

The main changes introduced in December 2010 were

Introduction

Like the version it replaced, the re-launched OED Online advertises itself as ‘the definitive record of the English Language’. Given the enormous, and unmatched, quantities of scholarly information accessible via the website, this claim has much to recommend it. It disguises the fact, however, that OED Online continues to contain some very out-of-date material.

There is no shame in the slow progress of revision. The original OED took over 70 years to complete. Today’s revision is arguably an equally ambitious project and has been in train for a fraction of that time (under 25 years). The revised entries attain high levels of scholarship and are eminently useful to the general public and a more academic audience alike. However, the new website misleads the user, since it makes it so very difficult for anyone other than the most sophisticated of lexicographical historians to navigate the baffling mixture of old and new contained within.

Take the entry for the everyday word fashion. One of the most common senses today is that defined as sense 1 on the sister website to OED, Oxford Dictionaries, as shown in the image below:2

Screenshot from Oxford Dictionaries website entry for fashion (noun), senses 1 and 1a, taken 29 August 2018

The equivalent sense on OED Online, consulted the same day, is as follows:

Screenshot from OED Online entry for fashion (noun), sense 9a, taken 29 August 2018

As can be seen, the most recent quotation for this sense is 1892, while self-evidently the definition – with its reference to ‘the upper circles of society’ – is both out-of-date and fails to conform to modern lexicographical standards (so instead of neutrally referring to different socio-economic groups, the definition appears to endorse the hierarchy they reflect). Oxford Dictionaries’ sense 1a, ‘The production and marketing of new styles of clothing and cosmetics’, is nowhere recognized in today’s OED or in previous editions, although Burchfield had added one new sense to the entry in his 1972 Supplement volume, subsequently incorporated into OED2 in 1989: high fashion, defined rather strangely as ‘haute couture’, together with several other compound terms such as fashion-conscious. Further combinatorial forms were later added in three successive stages of ‘Draft Additions’ (fashion victim, 2001, fashion police, 2005, fashion-forward, 2006); all three phrases rely on the sense of fashion (‘production and marketing of new styles’ etc) not in fact included in the OED entry itself.

This single example can be replicated many times and demonstrates one of the major problems with the re-launched website. Despite its up-to-the-minute design, and the thousands of revised entries which have been incorporated into the Dictionary over the last 18 years, over half of OED Online’s content is unchanged, or only partially changed, from first publication well over a hundred years ago. In the case of fashion, as in that of many other words, the entry has accreted uneven layers of revision, with a concomitant scattering of recent quotations which can mislead the reader into assuming the entry is up-to-date. Yet core meanings in today’s language remain untreated, or confusingly defined in 19th-century terms.

Users familiar with the pre-2010 website will recall that the revisers began in the middle of the alphabet, at the letter M. By December 2010 they had revised the entire alphabetic sequence M-R while also (since March 2008) revising short selected sequences of entries outside M-R. On the old website, this progress was recorded, so that users were able to consult a list giving them precise details of what had been revised when. These pages were taken down in 2010. The re-launched website provides no information on which alphabet ranges have been revised, or the proportion of today’s OED which is new.

Those consulting individual entries can, if they are observant and savvy, spot the date of an entry and work out its provenance using various tools and tricks. The most important evidence in this respect (described with a screenshot of the entry for banter on our previous page at Re-launched version) is the information supplied in the central column of the entry, to the right of the main text. Yet it is remarkable how many users overlook this section of the screen – including academics and students of English literature and language – perhaps because by the time one has scrolled down the page to look at the body of information in an entry this information has disappeared out of sight.

OED Online’s present combination of new and old material in its entries means that those using the website’s search tools, allowing one to analyse the Dictionary contents in many exciting ways (e.g., to identify words first used in the language at a particular date or during a specified period of years, or first used by a specific author), must exercise extreme caution in interpreting the results. See more at Search tools and links.

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Footnotes

  1. A summary notice of the transformation was originally posted at http://www.oed.com/public/welcome/welcome-to-the-new-oed-online/ [accessed December 2010]; this link now re-directs to the website’s Help page.
  2. Since this page was written, the Oxford Dictionaries website has been renamed and transferred to a different platform at Lexico. The entry for the noun fashion remains the same: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/fashion and the link in the caption on our image of the screenshot redirects to this new website (accessed July 2019).