By Kelly Laycock
“The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words—past and present—from across the English-speaking world.” 
Four times a year, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) publishes an update to their online historical dictionary, where they add new entries and revise existing entries based on a thorough process of collection and editing from their offices in London and New York. Oh, and don’t forget the ODO (Oxford Dictionary Online), which is also from Oxford but focusses more on current language usage rather than historical. It monitors important resources like the Oxford English Corpus and Oxford Reading Programme to track new words being used in the language.
Both dictionaries recently released their third update for 2014, which prompted this quiz from The Guardian newspaper from the UK, and which I promptly took. I was disappointed to discover I’m not as “amazeballs” at deciphering new slang as I had hoped. But it did trigger my curiosity, so I decided to do a little more research into the OED’s and the ODO’s process of acquiring new words.
The History of the OED
Before jumping into their current process straightaway, I felt it was important to learn a bit of the history of the dictionary. I was surprised to learn that the OED spans more than 150 years of work, beginning in 1857 when the Philological Society of London called for a new English dictionary. In 1879, the Oxford University Press began on what they expected to be 10 years of work. By 1984, five years into the project, the editors had reached the word ant. That spurred the decision to publish the dictionary in fascicles, or volumes, and publish them as they were completed. By 1928, they had completed the full 10-volume set.
After the original printing, they did their best to keep it current, producing supplements from 1933 to 1986, until the OED finally integrated all the supplements into one complete Second Edition in 1989. Of course, by then the electronic age was in full swing, and the editors took advantage of the software of the day and produced a CD-ROM edition in 1992. This took the 22,000-page, 20-volume print edition and reduced it to “a slim, shiny disk that takes up virtually no space and weighs just a few ounces.”
Today, the OED is in its Third Edition as an online resource available to everyone through subscription, and is in constant revision with the hopes of producing a complete print version in the future. Until then, the new and revised entries are added online every four months.
So how do the editors compile the new entries? What are their sources, and who decides what is revised each quarter? Well, their website tells it best, but here are some highlights:
Every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed
A staff of 120 scholars, research assistants, systems engineers, and project managers, plus approximately 200 specialist consultants and readers, have been working on this project since 1993, and since March 2000 the results of their editorial work have been published in quarterly instalments. This revision of the OED marks a new chapter in our understanding of the history and development of the English language.
Today’s historical dictionaries are not monumental, static volumes, but dynamic texts which incorporate up-to-date information and respond rapidly to new information about the language as it comes to light. So how is the Third Edition of the OED being compiled? These are the principal steps in the editorial process:
The Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO)
The ODO is quick to distinguish itself from their historical counterpart, and the website posts this table of differences:
|Historical dictionary.||Current dictionary.|
|Helps you to discover how English words and meanings have changed over time.||Provides current definitions of English words as they are used today.|
|Entries are ordered chronologically, so the first listed sense of a word will be the earliest meaning for which our lexicographers could find evidence.||Entries are ordered to display the most common meanings that are being used in modern English first, with less common senses further down the entry.|
|Traces the development and history of the words and phrases in the English language. Words are never removed from the OED.||Offers guidance on how the English language is used today, based on the Oxford English Corpus. Words can be removed when they are no longer used.|
|Tools that help to explore the history of the English language in different ways, including:
||Tools that help with your use of the English language in everyday situations, including advice on:
|Uses more than 3 million quotations to show how words have been used over the complete history of the English language.||Displays example sentences from the Oxford English Corpus of 21st century language to show how to use a word in the context of a sentence.|
So the corpus that Oxford maintains “consists of entire documents sourced largely from the World Wide Web.” The Reading Programme “is an electronic collection of sentences or short extracts drawn from a huge variety of writing, from song lyrics and popular fiction to scientific journals. It’s based on the contributions of an international network of readers who are on the lookout for instances of new words and meanings or other language changes.”
The editors of the ODO keep track of recent terms that emerge and select which ones make the cut. They explain, “In previous centuries dictionaries tended to contain lists of words that their writers thought might be useful, even if there was no evidence that anyone had ever actually used these words. This is not the case today. New terms have to be recorded in a print or online source before they can be considered.” They also comment that before a term can be added to a print dictionary, it needed to be used over a period of two or three years before being considered. But nowadays, “[n]ew terms can achieve enormous currency with a wide audience in a much shorter space of time, and people expect to find these new ‘high-profile’ words in their dictionaries.” By using online content from the corpus, editors are now able to assess words at a much faster rate.
Some of the Tasty Morsels
While that process certainly keeps our dictionaries current, it also allows slang and internet fads to take over our dictionaries, I find. For example, the June revision of the OED saw some interesting additions: bezzie, flexitarian, hashtag, and selfie. All right, a couple of those have received a lot of attention in the media lately, but will they endure the test of time? It’s hard to say, but it will remain in the dictionary forever. “The OED is unique…not only in never removing a word once it has been included, but also because we illustrate each entry with real evidence taken from a very wide range of print sources.”
The cool thing about the OED is it gives a great deal of information about the source of a word, including evidence of its real usage. A contributor to the OED, the Head of US Dictionaries Catherine Connor Martin, gives us this example in her notes about the recent release of the September revision:
British pubs have last orders, North American bars have last call—the notice to patrons that closing time is nigh, and any orders for further drinks should be placed immediately. Last call is attested in this meaning from 1935, but OED also records a much earlier and very different sense; in Christian theology, the last call is a summons given on the day of the Last Judgement, exhorting sinners to repent. Those who heed the secular last call typically don’t repent until the following day.
But if that wasn’t trendy enough for you, take a look at what the ODO has to offer in its most recent release: adorbs, binge-watch, cray, humblebrag, listicle, neckbeard, SMH, side boob, vape, and YOLO.
This update now allows you to say things like (and I completely just made these up!):
While he was binge-watching his favourite shows online, the tech-savvy youth was constantly distracted by the images of side boob in the click-bait of the side bar.
The executive assistant threw shade on the CEO when he accidentally used a hot mic at the conference, commenting to his colleague about the leader’s douchebaggery he’d witnessed in the office. Needless to say, the media live-tweeted every word of it!
If you don’t agree that that’s totally amazeballs, check out the complete list and comment below with your own sentences to show off your creative lexicality!