Search tools and links

New search tools and links on OED Online

The new search mechanisms on the re-launched OED Online facilitate a remarkable range of ways of accessing the vast quantity of data this Dictionary contains. Users should however be aware that the results returned by searches represent the undifferentiated content of different stages of compilation of OED – i.e., they turn up a combination of old and new scholarship. Moreover, the data searched is not stable: every quarter, the identical search will produce a different set of results, as the lexicographers upload a new batch of revised entries to the Dictionary and remove the corresponding unrevised ones.

No warning about either of these features is currently provided on OED Online itself.

Some of the associated problems with the new tools can be illustrated by looking in more detail at two of the search mechanisms prominently displayed on the front page of the OED’s website, Timelines and Sources.

Timelines

If we accept the website’s front-page invitation to ‘discover when words entered the English language’ and click on Timelines, we see a graph based on quotation dates from both revised and unrevised entries. The proportion of revised to unrevised entries is not stated on the website. This means that the results of any search are impossible to interpret with any certainty, as they represent an undistinguishable mixture of old lexicography with new. For example, we know from other sources that the original OED under-quoted the 18th century and over-quoted the 16th, and that the new OED, in its revision of entries, is seeking to remedy these sorts of unevennesses (see our pages on Period coverage and 1700-1799 in OED1/2). The editorial material under Timelines makes no mention of this, however, and provides no information about the original biases in period coverage or about how and to what extent OED3’s revisions are making good the 18th-century deficiency (and perhaps correcting the 16th-century over-supply).

The same problem applies to all the sub-categories under which one can search the OED Online website using the Timelines resource, whether by subject, region, or language of origin: the search is applied to a database which mixes old scholarship with new. Rich in significance as the results appear, they can only be interpreted if one has access to information (on what data are new and what old) which OED at present does not supply.

In 2005, EOED provided some indication of the direction of travel being taken by the revision where period coverage was concerned, comparing OED2 and OED3 quotations for the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Since this research was conducted, however, OED3 has probably doubled the number of revised entries, and in trying to identify the further changes OED3 has now made to the chronological record we can only compare OED2 with the composite mixture of entries now available on the OED website. The results of this from December 2018 onwards can be seen in our current pages under Period coverage; the 2005 study is now stored on our Archived site.

Sources

Similar issues arise when one looks at the results of searches for individual authors or texts. The fascinating material lodged under Sources, one of the OED Online’s front-page search buttons, gives users immediate access to all the words and/or senses for which OED records Shakespeare, for example – and many others (Chaucer, Milton, Walter Scott, and so on) – as first user. Again, nothing on the site warns us that these lists merge the search results from revised OED3 with unrevised OED2 entries.

Ironically, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that OED3’s admirable new research on quotation sources has in some cases completely overhauled the largely Victorian scholarship represented in OED2 (which copied over OED1’s pre-1850 coverage almost without change). Take Shakespeare, for example: his plays have been re-dated by the OED3 revision, his texts re-scrutinized, entries quoting his works have been re-configured (e.g. words previously treated in the body of one entry have been pulled out and assigned new independent entries), new words have been identified (e.g. compounds such as new snow or Life-in-Death), authorship newly attributed (e.g. Two Noble Kinsmen is now identified as part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre) – and of course many words which OED1 (and therefore OED2) credited to Shakespeare as first user have now been antedated and ascribed to other, earlier sources (around in one in three).1

Running together the Shakespeare first citations as recorded in OED3 with those recorded in OED2 produces results that are neither fish nor fowl, difficult to work with in any way that produces meaningful analysis either of OED’s original account of Shakespeare or of the changes to it now being made by the OED3 revision.

In particular, the removal of OED2 from the website (see discussion on previous page), as an independently searchable entity, has deprived users of any means of differentiating between new and old material in search results. It has thus prevented us from being able to appreciate the quality and consequences of OED3’s new scholarship.

For more discussion of OED1’s and OED3’s most quoted sources, go to Top sources.

Links on OED Online provide valuable access to other dictionaries and resources as well as to internally provided information on quotations and quotation sources. As of August 2019, external linked resources include

The last listed resource, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, contains editions of many canonical authors (notably Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden Dickens, Tennyson etc) quoted in large numbers in OED (see Top sources). Links to quotations from these authors firstly show a larger section of contextual text and secondly can be clicked on to access the whole of the source text quoted, at https://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com [accessed 28 August 2019; subscription required]. This is extraordinarily useful for literary researchers and interested readers. It also reinforces the continued character of the OED as a ‘literary instrument’ which foregrounds the work of the Victorian cultural canon.

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Footnotes

  1. For an account of OED3’s treatment of Shakespeare and the effect on our understanding of his lexical creativity, see Brewer 2013 or download podcast on the topic from the Oxford University website. A new page on Shakespeare in the OED is due to go up on the EOED website in 2019-20.