The Oxford English Dictionary is one of humanity’s greatest achievements

The New Oxford Dictionary of English
The New Oxford Dictionary of English

Duh-duh, duh-duh, diddly duh, dum. That, in case you haven’t been a student in recent years and so haven’t watched much daytime telly for a while, is the sound the Countdown clock makes as it ticks off its last seconds. As we speak, the clock is diddly-dumming for Countdown’s print edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English. Dictionary Corner is going online.

For the last 30 years, the show has used the ODE – the dictionary of modern English, not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical record of all words ever used in the English language – to check whether the words that contestants come up with are legitimate. Starting today, however, Dictionary Corner’s Susie Dent will use the Oxford Dictionaries Online website, rather than riffling through the dictionary itself.

There is something sad, perhaps, about this. The Oxford dictionaries are one of humanity’s greatest achievements – the first edition of the OED was a seven-decade labour of love, and a groundbreaking new way of looking at how we use our language. As Simon Winchester writes in his wonderful book about the birth of the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, the idea of looking something up in the dictionary, such a basic concept to us, is relatively new: indeed the phrasal verb “to look up”, meaning to search for something in a book of reference, is not recorded until 1692. Shakespeare could not look up words in a comprehensive English dictionary; nor could Bunyan or Milton.

Things called “dictionaries” had existed; a “dictionarius” of Latin terms was published in 1225. Winchester credits the first English-only dictionary to a Rutland schoolmaster called Robert Cawdrey, who in 1604 published “A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Unusual English Words”, a 2,500-entry mini-dictionary “for the benefit & help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilful persons”. Others followed in that vein – but, like Cawdrey’s, they tended to be records of “hard words” which could be used by writers to impress readers: “benignitie”, “Archgrammacian”.

Samuel Johnson’s masterpiece, A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, paved the way for modern dictionaries. Ignoring the clamour of his contemporaries Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift for a work which “fixed” the English language, prescribing right and wrong, Johnson looked at how the language was actually used, going through 150 years of written English to find quotes which supported his 42,000 definitions. And a century later, in 1858, in one of those great ambitious Victorian projects, a group of scholars decided to go one better, and make a “Big Dictionary” which would include every single word used in the language, determining when each word was first used, based on quotations found by a huge army of volunteers hunting through all written sources wherever English was spoken, in Britain and abroad. This became the OED. It was expected to have 60 to 100,000 submissions from volunteers; it received 6 million. It was meant to be four volumes, and take 10 years; in the end, it was 10 volumes, and took 70. The first volume was published in 1884. It covered A to Ant.

Sir James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary
Sir James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Of course, it’s not this vast beast that Dent has used in Dictionary Corner; its second edition, published in 1989, is 20 volumes and 20,000 pages, and weighs around 140lb, probably more than Dent herself. Instead she has used the New Oxford Dictionary of English, a single volume dedicated to modern English usage. But, she says, even that cannot keep up with the pace of change in English. Its most recent edition was published in 2010; the online dictionaries are updated every three months. The move, says Dent, reflects the fact “that English is evolving probably faster than it ever has before”.

You can understand Dent feeling like that. New words are being created, constantly, and old words’ meanings change. The words that have been added to the online dictionary since 2010 include “glamping” (glamorous camping), “femtosecond” (one millionth of a billionth of a second), “facepalm” (a gesture expressing despair or embarrassment), and “slacktivism” (supporting a cause online without really making any effort). This year has seen new meanings added for the words “ship” and “thing” – “ship” as a shortening of “relationship”, used to describe a romantic pairing in a fictional series that the audience would like to see (“the Mulder/Scully ship”), and “thing” as in “an established phenomenon or practice” (“Is mayonnaise on pizza a thing?”). The English language is expanding at such a rate that the OED’s publishers have suggested that there may never be a third printed edition, because it would fill at least 40 volumes and is already 20 years behind schedule. The pace of change is dizzying.

Except, of course, that it it’s not. As Geoffrey Pullum, an Edinburgh linguist, told me recently, the English language is in fact very stable, probably more stable than any other language in history: “The changes you get over a century are trivial. Dracula was published in 1897. When you read it, you don’t have difficulty.” He could also have pointed out that Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is 260 years old and perfectly comprehensible; even Shakespeare can be understood reasonably well by most modern English speakers. There are 360 million native English speakers worldwide, and a long tradition of literacy – including, of course, great dictionaries. The language can’t change that quickly, simply because there are too many people and books which all need to be comprehensible to each other; it has inertia. Smaller languages, without so many literate users, tend to change much more quickly.

Even the words that we see bursting into existence, or changing meaning, are usually older than we think. That most modern of exclamations, “OMG”, was first recorded in 1917; the much-derided use of “disinterested” to mean “not interested” goes back to 1610. Linguists call our tendency to assume usages we’ve only just noticed are modern abominations the “recency illusion“.

But even so, there are about 1,000 new words added to the Oxford Dictionaries every year. Phablet, emoji, fauxhawk. In the grand scheme of things, of course, that’s not a huge number – it’s impossible to say exactly how many words there are in the English language, but the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog puts it at at least a quarter of a million, depending on how you count them. But it’s easily enough to play havoc with Countdown’s poor Dictionary Corner. So time is nearly up. Duh-duh, duh-duh, diddly duh, dum.

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