Loss of OED2

For the casual user of the Dictionary, the loss of OED2 (i.e. the unrevised version of OED published in 1989) from the re-launched OED website may not seem particularly significant. As explained at OED Online, entries on the current website are a mixture of revised and unrevised material. Users who realise an entry has been recently updated, and want to see the OED2 version it replaces, can click on a button on the central column of the screen which brings up a new screen with the original OED2 entry on it.

The disappearance of OED2 is a severe setback for lexicographical historians, however – and indeed for anyone wishing to track the progress of the new edition, and observe and analyse the differences OED3 is making to the OED as it works its way through entry after entry. Since it is now no longer possible to search OED2 electronically, users cannot compare the unrevised with the revised dictionary. So it is now no longer possible to identify the major changes currently being made to the OED’s record of the language.

There are three distinct issues here:

1. A vital comparator

OED3 is slowly but surely transforming its predecessor OED2, itself derived from OED1 and the only full historical dictionary of English ever to have been produced. OED3’s own explanation of its procedures is minimal, with no analytic or descriptive report of any length or detail provided on the website, nor a record of which entries have been revised. Removal of OED2 has removed our ability to observe and understand the ways in which the most authoritative historical account of English is correcting, updating and reconfiguring its own evidence and thus remoulding its representation of our linguistic past and present.

2. Loss of invaluable historical document

The original version of the OED, largely preserved in OED2, treated periods, genres and sources unevenly, so that its record of language was distorted in many ways: it under-represented the 18th century, for example, while over-representing the vocabulary of great writers highly rated by its Victorian and Edwardian editors, such as Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Dickens and Tennyson (see our pages on Top Sources and elsewhere). These distortions and biases were largely unavoidable. They tell one about the culture in which the lexicographers worked, the resources available to them, and the methodology they used: in other words, they encode significant historical information. Similarly, OED2’s definitions, usage labels, choice of quotations sources etc, in the majority of cases carried over unchanged from OED1, record cultural assumptions of the time, providing irreplaceable evidence of social attitudes relating to race, sex and the body, gender, politics and so on from the Victorian period through to the 1970s and 1980s. The loss of an electronically searchable form of OED2 means that these features of the original dictionary can no longer be systematically studied. A literally vast quantity of historical evidence, shedding light on many different aspects of culture and society, has been removed from the possibility of academic investigation.

3. Implication for searches

The post-2010 form of the Dictionary on OED Online does not enable searches which distinguish between revised and unrevised entries. So the impressive new search facilities – notably those flagged up on the front page of the website, called ‘Timelines’ and ‘Sources’ – deliver results that are at best confusing and at worst misleading. For fuller discussion of these two resources see next page on Search tools and links.

Last updated on 11 February 2020