Continuous change

All OED Online entries are subject to constant change. Users should be aware that new and updated entries, as well as those as yet unrevised, may change from day to day, notwithstanding the date stamp provided for new and updated entries.

New and updated entries

Once revised or initially created, entries are assigned a fixed date. Entries can nevertheless change after publication, without corresponding change in the date stamp. This can be seen in the screenshots below for the impersonal pronoun ze, one of the many new and revised entries relating to sexuality and gender which were released over 2018. Date-stamped June 2018, this entry changed between November 2018 and January 2019 with the addition of a striking antedating for the first quotation, from 1972 to 1864. Both versions of the entry bear the same date stamp.

Such treatment is now routine. An even more striking change was made to the entry for marriage, updated and date-stamped in 2000. At some stage after 2013, when the UK Parliament legislated to introduce same-sex marriage, the definition was re-written. References to husband and wife were dropped and replaced with a new but undated definition: ‘The legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship’.

This is a regrettable erasure of historically valuable information: it removes evidence of how and a change to the lexicographical record has been made and vitiates OED’s authority as a documentary source. Dictionary definitions reflect the historical and scholarly conditions of the time and constitute valuable textual evidence. Changes made to definitions (and all other features of OED text) should be transparent, dated and documented – as routinely happens in the case of other online sources of historical record, such as the much less rigorously overseen Wikipedia.

In this case, the problem is compounded by OED’s failure to update related words at the same time as making the unacknowledged changes to marriage: the entries for the adjective marital and verb marry, also date-stamped 2000, remain unchanged as of 31 August 2019 and continue to specify husband and wife.1

Updated definitions and newly discovered quotation evidence are both very welcome features of OED. It should go without saying, however, that for historical and scholarly purposes it is vital to provide full information on any changes subsequently made to an authoritative and dated textual record.

Screenshots for ze
Screenshot from OED Online of 12 Nov 2018
Screenshot from OED Online of 8 Jan 2019

Unrevised entries

Unrevised entries on OED Online are also subject to constant change as new quotations are added and definitions changed. Such entries are often palimpsests of old and new, which can cause problems for unwary users (see Re-launched OED Online introduction); in particular, definitions now regarded as offensive (e.g. for words relating sexuality and race) are in general excised and replaced.2

Two changes to all unrevised entries were made at the time of the 2010 re-launch of OED Online:

  • Pervasive bibliographical changes, i.e. of unrevised as well as revised sections of the Dictionary
  • Removal of usage symbols which indicated potentially prescriptive lexicographical judgements
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. This means that unrevised entries in OED3 now cite the same sources as revised entries, so that dates and editions assigned to the quoted texts have occasionally been changed.

This pervasive re-dating can produce notable changes in the way that evidence is presented in entries as yet unrevised in any other way, particularly notable in the case of quotations from Shakespeare and other writers who have previously been assumed to have been first users of the vocabulary in question. OED3 now assigns the date a1616 (i.e. Shakespeare’s death) to all texts whose earliest textual witness is the First Folio of 1623.3

Removal of usage symbols

Two special symbols were used in OED1, the 1972-86 Supplement, and OED2: the paragraph mark [¶] to indicate ‘catachrestic or erroneous’ usages, and two small vertical lines, known as ‘tramlines’ [║] to indicate words of foreign origin not yet naturalised in the language. Both have been removed from the unrevised entries.

The static (unsearchable) OED2 form of the entry, with symbols and text unchanged, can be seen by clicking on ‘previous version’ in the central column on the page.

The removal of these symbols is in line with OED3’s adoption of a consistently descriptive approach to lexicography. See further Language and usage.

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Footnotes

  1. Thanks to Stephen Turton for this observation. The definition for sense 1 of marital reads, ‘Of or relating to marriage, or the relations between a husband and wife’; the accompanying note adds, ‘In some modern contexts, marital is occasionally used with more general reference to any (sexual) relationship similar to that of a husband and wife’. The definition for sense 1 of marry reads, ‘To enter into the state of matrimony; to take a husband or wife’. The inconsistency between these various entries was reported to the OED in early 2019.
  2. See archived discussion on our previous website (uploaded to EOED in 2012) of the OED1/2 entry for catamite, subsequently updated in June 2018.
  3. For OED3’s new dating of Shakespeare see 1500-1699 in OED3, fn. 3.