Oxford English Dictionary editor at large describes decades-long process of revision

Jack Dodson/The Pendulum

Since its first publication in 1928, the Oxford English Dictionary — at 20 volumes, the most comprehensive historical dictionary in the world — has only been revised once in 1933, and republished once with supplemental material in 1979.

And though Jesse Scheidlower’s job as the dictionary’s editor at large for North America is to spend his days updating, revising and adding new entries, there’s no guarantee that there will ever be an OED 3. He addressed the issues involved with revising the OED at Elon University Nov. 10, tracing the history of lexicography to support his case.

Scheidlower, who is also the president elect of the American Dialect Society, gave a talk called “Updating the Oxford English Dictionary,” was hosted by English academic society Sigma Tau Delta, and was held in Whitley Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. During the lecture, one of the things he characterized as most challenging about revising the OED is that it is all-encompassing of language, so many words are included that wouldn’t be in other dictionaries.

“We put these (words) in because they’re part of our language,” Scheidlower said. “We don’t keep them out because we don’t like them.”

These words include slang and derogatory terms like swears, which might offend people. He said whether a word is in use, not its meaning, determines if it finds a place in the OED.

He also noticed a number of years ago that no scholarly research had really been done to track a particular four-letter word that had been a major part of language for centuries. His research prompted him to write “The F-Word,” a highly academic look at the background of the word.

“There aren’t that many words out there that you can write an entire book about,” Scheidlower said. “It’s not something that is typically studied by academics.”

Since the subject has largely been left untouched, Scheidlower said the book is scholarly at its root and not intended for humorous purposes.

When he started out, he traced the history of lexicography — or the history of dictionaries — as well as the past of the OED. He said the first dictionary was put together in the fifteenth century, and hardly resembled the format that’s used today. There was no pronunciation guide, usage guides and no sentence examples.

The words featured were different, too. He said many of them were very esoteric, and it didn’t include everyday words. But in 1755, after a few versions of this kind of dictionary had been published, Scheidlower said one of the most important dictionaries was made. Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was really the first to categorize words to the extent they are today, giving actual examples of their usage and various explanations for words.

“No one had done this before,” Scheidlower said. “Everything he came up with, he came up with his own analysis of it … he would go through a wide variety of texts and note words that he thought were interesting. You can’t overstate how hard this is.”

This was the work that essentially set the stage for the OED — which he said took 44 years to create. A project that started in the late 1800s and wasn’t published until 1928, Scheidlower said this it moved pretty quickly for a comprehensive historical dictionary.

Because even now, as the OED’s third revision is in progress, he said it has taken the editors more than a decade to get through less than a quarter of the dictionary — between adding new words and revising old entries, the OED 3 is a long process.

“We are progressing as best we can,” Scheidlower said. “Far and away, the main goal is to finish editing. Things are speeding up, but it’s still clear that it’s a decades-long project just to revise it.”

And once it’s done, he said it might not even go to print. For now, it’s being updated on its website, where all the words are searchable and characterized. But once the total revision is done, it may not even become a hard copy — one reason being the editors anticipate it would double in size to become a 40-volume set.

He said when people ask him about the project, he doesn’t have a certain answer to give them.

“We will have to wait and see how it goes,” he said. “We don’t know if the next edition of the OED — OED 3 — will ever be printed.”


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