OED3, the first-ever revision of the OED since its initial publication over the years 1884-1928, is not viewable or searchable separately from OED Online. This makes it difficult to describe or evaluate in any systematic way, although the evidence visible in individual entries indicates that huge changes are being made to the lexicographical record. Definitions and semantic analyses of words are being re-written, entries re-dated, etymologies newly analysed in the light of the last hundred years and more of scholarship, and hundreds of thousands of quotations have been added, along with numerous other changes. There is no doubt that these changes, when finally visible, will transform our understanding of the history of vocabulary in English from 1150 to the present day.
The revision began in the second half of the 1990s under the editorship of John Simpson (retired 2013) and continues today under that of Michael Proffitt. Around 60 lexicographers are employed in Oxford by Oxford University Press while others work outside Oxford. The new edition – as throughout the Dictionary’s history – is also reliant on the quotations and information produced by its many volunteer readers and researchers. OED3 is published only in online form, in quarterly updates which are seamlessly integrated into the preceding electronic version of the Dictionary.
The OED3 lexicographers are engaged in two major tasks. Firstly, they research and write entries for the many new and recent words as yet unrecorded in the OED. This current stage of addition to the OED is the fourth in its history (after the First Supplement of 1933, the Second of 1972-86, the 5,000 words added to OED2, and the three Additions volumes in the 1990s) and it is by far the most thorough, protracted and rigorous to date. The editors now have access to digital resources – billion-word corpuses of contemporary English, search and analytic techniques, storage capacity – unimaginable by their predecessors. The OED website provides full information on the editorial processes involved in producing these new entries, including complete lists of the words concerned, along with links to accompanying articles and blogs, in the quarterly updates which can be read online at Updates to the OED.1
Secondly, the lexicographers revise existing entries in the Dictionary. It is much more difficult for users to get information on this process as no complete list of revised entries exists. The lexicographers provided such lists regularly up to September 2010 but ceased from that date onwards, with the launch of the new website (see Relaunched OED Online). The entire alphabet range M-R was revised between 2000-2010, so we can be confident that every entry for a word beginning with these letters is up-to-date. But revision policy changed dramatically from March 2008 onwards, when – concurrently with consecutive alphabetical revision – revisions also began of ‘a series of discrete alphabetical ranges’ of entries. Criteria for choosing which entries to revise have not been published; in practice the choice seems to be concentrated on words for which most online hits are recorded on the website, though it is also the case that particular categories of words are sometimes revised in batches.2 Consecutive alphabetic revision was abandoned in 2010 after the completion of the letters M-R.
Progress on the revision is slow and detailed information is hard to come by. The OED Online update for December 2011 reported that ‘the running total [of new and revised entries] stands at 102,133 entries (or 37% of the dictionary entries on OED Online)’. More cautiously, a recently added entry against the year 2000 on OED’s list of Dictionary Milestones records that ‘More than forty percent of the dictionary has been revised, with new and revised words from across the alphabet appearing each quarter.’3 The 2000 ‘milestone’ also states that ‘The OED currently defines more than 636,000 lexical items, with around 864,000 separate senses, illustrated by over 3.7 million quotations drawn from over 1,000 years of the written history of English,’ though this statement must apply both to revised and unrevised entries, some of the latter over 100 years out-of-date.
An independent assessment of OED3’s progress, by David-Antoine Williams of the University of Waterloo, concluded that the revision was 52% of the way through in December 2019.4
Revised entries are now dotted about the alphabet and users need to be vigilant in checking whether they are looking at an entry revised in the last few years or at one dating back as far as the 1880s.
Editorial practice and policy during the process of constructing OED3 has changed and developed since the initial launch in 2000, for example on the inclusion of World English(es) and on the treatment of issues relating to usage and correctness. We plan to put up new pages on these and other Topics in the future.
Our pages on OED Online give more information about consulting the Dictionary in its current form and describe some of the recent features of the revision. Period coverage explores the chronological shape of the emerging new Dictionary, so far as it can be identified, and Literary sources (under development) investigates the OED’s continued reliance on the works of creative writers. See also OED3 quotation collection (pages from the earlier EOED website originally written in 2007-11 and scheduled for revision over 2020).
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- Accessed 19 July 2019; on this date not all links were active.
- These are sometimes written up on the website blog; see e.g. Jonathan Dent, ‘Release notes: the formal language of sexuality and gender identity’, at https://public.oed.com/blog/march-2018-update-release-notes-formal-language-sexuality-gender-identity/ [accessed 28 August 2019].
- Quoted respectively from https://public.oed.com/updates/ [accessed 30 June 2020] and https://public.oed.com/history/dictionary-milestones/ [n.d.; accessed 30 June 2020].
- See ‘More precisions on revisions’, https://thelifeofwords.uwaterloo.ca/precisions-on-revisions/ [accessed 30 June 2020]. The University of Waterloo, which partnered with IBM and OUP in the 1980s to digitize the OED, is unique in holding an electronic version of OED2 which forms the basis of Williams’ research; see Charkin 2018 [accessed 30 June 2020].