By Edward Finegan
“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary” David Bowie exclaimed to an interviewer in 1999 — and, in tribute, added, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” It is about everything — everything with a name — and it is really long. Nor is it a stretch to regard it as poetic: Shakespeare is the most frequently cited author of the OED’s illustrative quotations. David Bowie may not have read the whole OED, but a furniture mover named Ammon Shea recently did just that. He read all of its 21,730 pages — and judged it “a great read.” In the OED he found “all of the human emotions and experiences … just as they would be in any fine work of literature,” even if, as he wryly noted, in the OED those emotions and experiences “just happen to be alphabetized.” Plainly, Bowie and Shea were blessed with a touch of onomatomania!
Other “onomatomaniacs” regularly grab the headlines. News outlets run stories about the word of the year, or WOTY, chosen by one organization or another. In January 2016, members of the American Dialect Society anointed they as their WOTY. Its utility as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person — a substitute for the gendered pronouns he and she — won this 800-year-old humble pronoun that commendation! Besides simple words like they, the American Dialect Society accepts compounds and phrases as candidates and even hashtags and emojis. Last year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter won their vote, and two years earlier hashtag itself was the winner. If dictionaries are alphabetized repositories of words, we might ask what kinds of expression are eligible to appear in them. With the Oxford English Dictionary announcing revisions to its latest version every three months, we can address that question by reviewing recent additions.
About 500 updates were announced in late 2015 — expressions and senses added just in the preceding quarter: words like improvisor, locavore, phablet, subcommittee, and truther, along with compounds like attack ad, bankroller, commitment ceremony and commitment ring, exit interview and exit polling, firepit, fire hydrant, and fire sale, granny chic and granny gear, improvised explosive device and IED, location scout, strength training, and true believer. Among newly added phrases were fight fire with fire and be firing on all cylinders. Some updates captured expressions that had appeared only recently in print: locavore in 2005; phablet in 2010. While truther may seem novel, it’s been around for over a century, and bankroller dates to 1930, improvisor to 1830, and firepit to 1500. For a surprising number of updates, then, the OED is merely catching up. Dictionaries are linguistic laggards, not leaders!
Among recent “blends” added to the OED are autotune, bromance, photobomb, cybrarian, sext, sexploit, shockumentary, staycation, hacktivism, voluntourism, and twerk (a word since 1820, possibly blending twitch or twist and jerk); among compounds, Blu-ray, crowdfunding, pageview, stir-fry, tan line, tea partier, hoverboard, and the verb waterboard; among words derived by prefixing, declutter and retweet. More liberal now than in its first edition, the new OED contains foodie, gazillionaire, artsy, carb, trash talk, party animal, street cred, prenup, shopaholic and infoholic, app, McJob, studmuffin, LOL and OMG, shout-out, tighty-whities, wackadoodle, fashionista, schwag, blamestorming, selfie, 24-7, and about 8,000 other colloquial expressions. It also contains over two hundred “coarse slang” terms and senses, including dipshit, hump, Masshole, pissy, pole, screw, shag, and dozens that include the F-word. A 60-year-old euphemism itself, F-word first appeared in the OED only in 2008.
So how do editors decide what goes into the OED — and when? Well, the primary data upon which the OED relies for definitions and for tracing the evolution in a word’s meaning are real-life quotations. To nourish the first OED, volunteer readers around the world submitted slips of paper, each containing an illustrative quotation — a sentence with a single word underlined (and including details of its source). Today, via the Internet anyone anywhere can furnish quotations in response to editors’ appeals, and modern-day crowdsourcing provides the authoritative basis for OED definitions. Contributors tackle newspapers and diaries; specialist magazines (treating, say, jazz or pop culture) and journals (treating, say, medicine or astronomy); cook books, movie scripts — any venue where a vibrant English is in use. More than three million quotations breathe life into the OED, reflecting in words an evolving view of the world shaped for English-speakers by their adaptive language during the past thousand years. Beyond that, inquiries by people visiting the online dictionary — words typed into its search function — provide a heads-up about new and trending words that can indicate those missing from the dictionary. Editors may then seek published quotations containing previously unnoticed expressions or senses, and assess how widely they are used. Editors also mine other dictionaries — such as the Dictionary of American Regional English — to detect overlooked words.
Today, the vast resources of language on the Internet provide illustrative quotations that document a word’s meaning, origins, and utility. As a consequence of its reliance on real-world quotations, the OED is a descriptive dictionary — it illustrates and explains how English speakers actually use their language, and it doesn’t prescribe how editors — or anyone else — think they should use it. While many a language priss or fuss-pot may lambaste a dictionary that fails to prescribe, the OED prides itself on describing the living language and its history.
Despite an abundance of online language materials and mammoth computing power, lexicography — like language itself — remains a creative enterprise. Being a historical dictionary, the OED endeavors to document the development of English words from their beginnings to the present day. When the project was conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, its visionaries couldn’t imagine what labor and time their “New English Dictionary” would require. The first unbound “fascicle,” covering the letters A to Ant, was published in 1884, and by time the 128th — and final — fascicle appeared in 1928 the treatment of many words at the head of the alphabet had become outdated, and other words in widespread use were missing.
One famous example involves appendicitis. The word had first appeared in print in 1886, but OED editor James Murray excluded it: too erudite and rare. Then, in 1902, when the coronation of Edward VII was postponed to accommodate an attack of appendicitis, his subjects — and English speakers worldwide — were left to wonder what it was! Changed by World War I, the English language and the dictionary encapsulating it needed to reflect new realities, incorporating military and war terms and a wide range of cultural expressions, and a supplement appeared in 1933. Again, in 1957, following another world war and great cultural changes, work started on a new supplement, which appeared in four large tomes between 1972 and 1986. The second edition of the OED, incorporating the four-volumes, included a huge expansion of 20th-century terms, especially in science and technology, and far better coverage of English outside Britain. On a tour of the United States, R. W. Burchfield, the supplement’s editor, acknowledged that “The center of gravity for the English language is no longer Britain” and conceded that “American English is the greatest influence on English everywhere.”
English may be said to have started in the middle of the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain. Since that time, English speakers have come into contact with peoples speaking hundreds of languages, and as a consequence English has “borrowed” tens of thousands of words from scores of languages. Names of foods are among the most obvious borrowings. In cities around the world, ethnic restaurants familiarize English speakers with terms to spice up their wordhoard. As examples, miso, ramen, sashimi, shiitake, soy, sushi, tempura, teriyaki, tofu, and wasabi come from Japanese; kimchi from Korean; tahini, falafel, harissa, shawarma, tabbouleh, halal from Arabic; and dal, ghee, and chutney from Hindi. Reflecting various historical and cultural touchstones are other borrowings: from Korean, tae kwon do; from Arabic, alcohol, alcove, algebra, alkali, almanac (all beginning with the Arabic definite article), and mujahidin, hijab, loofah, fedayeen, jihad, medina, and intifada; from Hindi, jungle, rupee, raj, yoga, guru, veranda, cot, thug, sari, dinghy, bangle, cheetah, loot, chintz, sangha, ganja, gunny, and swami; and from Japanese, Zen, samurai, tsunami, kimono, tycoon, haiku, karate, rickshaw, shogun, geisha, judo and ju-jitsu, kamikaze, bonsai, kanji, ginkgo, karaoke, sumo, futon, koi, origami, kudzu, honcho, ninja — and over 500 more.
Visitors to the OED Online can readily discover that from American or Mexican Spanish come abalone, Apache, charro, Chicana and Chicano, coyote, gringo, hoosegow, and stampede (alongside food names like burrito, chilli, fajita, taco, and tamale). Given the prominence of Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, it’s no accident that the Spanish word quinceañera first appeared in an English-language newspaper published in Van Nuys (in 1972). Los Angeles also has a significant Persian-speaking community, through whose language directly or indirectly have come ayatollah, baksheesh, bazaar, caravan, cummerbund, dervish, dinar, divan, khaki, kiosk, pashmina, seersucker, shah, sherbet, taffeta, and turban. From Hawaiian comes wiki (shortened from wikiwiki ‘quick quick’), while hickory, hominy, moccasin, skunk, sockeye, tepee, toboggan, tomahawk, wickiup, and woodchuck come directly or indirectly from Native American languages, as do place names like Illinois, Oklahoma, and Malibu.
Not all words have known origins, and OED Online makes it easy to identify posh, gizmo, honky-tonk, reggae, nifty, jalopy, bonkers, bozo, smidgen, boondoggle, pizzazz, barf, fuddy-duddy, and boffin as terms seemingly from nowhere. But such informal words aren’t the only ones that thwart etymologists: the origins of girl, big, dog, beach, and other core words also remain baffling.
In print dictionaries we rely on the alphabet to locate a word and its meaning, and the 21st-century OED Online remains alphabetical, with meanings organized chronologically (and by part of speech) within its entries. Alphabetically, abalone follows abalienation and desk follows desize, but there is no shared meaning within the pairs. Our discussion above peeked at words through the lenses of word type (blends and compounds) and language source (Persian and Hindi). Within language sources we discussed foods, a semantic category of words. Had it suited our purpose, we could have organized the discussion solely by categories of meaning: food (sushi, taco, kimchi, chutney), sport and recreation (tae kwan do, karate, sumo), combat (kamikaze, mujahidin, tomahawk), fabric (chintz, khaki, taffeta), and dress (cummerbund, sari, turban). Even a dictionary that lists meaning relationships like synonym (shut for close) and antonym (close for open) doesn’t allow meaning connections to be systematically pursued. Instead, the job of organizing words according to their meaning falls to a thesaurus, and despite Roget’s influential lead it’s a gigantic challenge to systematize meanings meaningfully.
To help in that endeavor, OED Online links to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2009 after decades spent designing a suitable system other than the alphabet. In the end, the Historical Thesaurus organized words under three top-level categories of meaning — the external world, the mind, and society, each with subcategories and subcategories of subcategories. As an example, alongside the OED’s definition of Hollywood (“The American film industry, its characteristics and background; (also) a film produced in Hollywood”), a link to the thesaurus yields two kinds of information: the hierarchy categorizing this meaning of Hollywood (society > leisure > the arts > performance arts > cinematography …) and — in historical order — the words in the OED that share that meaning: filmland, Hollywood, Tinseltown, and la-la land. A monumental work itself, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reorganizes all the OED’s words in accordance with their meaning.
Our discussion of the OED, citing so many categories of words, could not have been written using only a print edition customarily found in a library reading room. Online search capabilities were crucial. With links to the thesaurus and a fistful of search functions, OED visitors can access a vibrant language in a dynamic historical dictionary that remains alphabetical in its organization but invites exploration in a dozen alternative ways as well. With frequent announcements of revisions and with fascinating search options, OED Online is the most stimulating and informative window on the development of English vocabulary and, over the course of a millennium, the evolution of the notions, concepts, and meanings captured in English words. Beyond linguistic matters, today’s OED invites social, cultural, and historical exploration in ways hardly imagined before the 21st century. Visits to the OED, traveled along the alphabet or alternate routes, have the power to reshape how we organize our knowledge of the world through words: the Oxford English Dictionary is about everything — everything with a name!
 Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008)
Edward Finegan is Professor of Linguistics and Law, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California.
This essay is connected to Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary, a Library Foundation of Los Angeles project. The project will also host an unprecedented dual language English and Spanish spelling bee in the Mark Taper Auditorium of Downtown LA’s historic Central Library this Saturday, March 19.
Image courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.