Stefan Dollinger on the changing expectations of the Oxford English Dictionary

Until December 24, 2013, Rare Books and Special Collections at the UBC Library is running an exhibition, The Road to the Oxford English Dictionary, that traces the history of English lexicography and the work that eventually led to the OED. To kick off this exhibition, Stefan Dollinger, assistant professor in the English department at UBC and editor-in-chief of The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, gave a free public lecture titled “Oxford English Dictionary, the Grimm Brothers, and Miley Cyrus: On the Changing Expectations of the OED—Past, Present, and (Possible) Futures.”

The OED, said Dollinger, bills itself as “the definitive record of the English language.” So what happens when you try to look up a recently coined word like “twerk”? The Oxford English Dictionary itself returns

No dictionary entries found for ‘twerk’.

but, the contemporary dictionary, gives this definition:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
[no object] informal

dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance:

just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

twerk it girl, work it girl

Will words like “twerk” and “bootylicious” eventually make their way into the OED? We don’t usually expect these kinds of neologisms to become accepted by the dictionary so quickly, but earlier this year, the OED quietly added the social media sense of the word “tweet,” breaking its rule that a word has to be current for ten years before it’s considered for inclusion—a move that possibly signals a change in our expectations of the dictionary.

Dollinger took a step back to the roots of the OED. As much as Oxford University Press would like to claim that the dictionary was a pioneering publication, a lot of the groundwork for the kind of lexicography used to put it together had been laid by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm a few years earlier when they published the first volume of their German language dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm). Nor is the OED‘s the world’s largest monolingual dictionary; that distinction belongs to the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (Dictionary of the Dutch language), with over 430,000 entries running almost 50,000 pages. Is the OED the most historically important dictionary? Dollinger offered the contrasting example of the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project of the American Dialect Society, which used detailed questionnaires to collect rigorous regional, social, and historical data about words used in American English. Although the number of entries pales in comparison with the OED, the level of detail is unparalleled and probably more important to researchers of the English language.

Still, there’s no denying that the OED has been extremely influential and is still considered an authoritative resource. Dollinger gave us a run-down of the dictionary’s history.

In November 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster Abbey, addressed the Philological Society in London in a talk later published as On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. In this publication, which planted the seeds of the OED, Trench outlined seven problems with existing dictionaries:

I. Obsolete words are incompletely registered; some inserted, some not; with no reasonable rule adduced for the omission of these, the insertion of those other.

II. Families or groups of words are often imperfect, some members of a family inserted, while others are omitted.

III. Oftentimes much earlier examples of the employment of words exist than any which our Dictionaries have cited; indicating that they were earlier introduced into the language than these examples would imply; and in case of words now obsolete, much later, frequently marking their currency at a period long after that when we are left to suppose that they passed out of use.

IV. Important meanings and uses of words are passed over; sometimes the later alone given, while the earlier, without which the history of words will be often maimed and incomplete, or even unintelligible, are unnoticed.

V. Comparatively little attention is paid to the distinguishing of synonymous words.

VI. Many passages in our literature are passed by, which might be usefully adduced in illustration of the first introduction, etymology, and meaning of words.

VII. And lastly, our Dictionaries err in redundancy as well as in defect, in the too much as well as the too little; all of them inserting some things, and some of them many things, which have properly no claim to find room in their pages.

Trench’s recommendations included using quotations to show usage, a practice now known as the “OED method” but that should, accordingly to Dollinger, perhaps more accurately be termed the “Grimm method,” seeing as they used the same approach for their Wörterbuch. Trench also wrote

A Dictionary, then, according to that idea of it which seems to me alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they commend themselves to his judgment or otherwise, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed.

This most progressive thought of Trench’s echoes the Grimms, who, three years earlier, in their 1854 Wörterbuch, had written

“And here the difference between adorned language and vulgar (raw) language comes into effect… Should the dictionary list the indecent words or should they be left out?… The dictionary, if it is supposed to be worth its salt, is not here to hide words, but to show them… one must not try to eradicate such words and expressions.”

Trench, incidentally, never acknowledged any of the Grimms’ innovations, many of which the OED‘s lexicographers (consciously or unconsciously) borrowed.

In 1879, Oxford University Press appointed James A.H. Murray as editor-in-chief of the OED, and he edited more than half of the entries in the first edition. In 1928, the dictionary was published in twelve volumes, at which point it already needed updating. William Craigie and C.T. Onions edited a supplement, published in 1933; the thirteen volumes together are referred to collectively as OED1. Edmund Weiner and John Simpson co-edited the dictionary’s second edition, OED2, which was published in print in 1989 and on CD-ROM in 1992.

Did these editors follow Trench’s suggestion that the OED be a comprehensive inventory of the language? Dollinger noted that colonial bias in Victorian times, and consequently, in the OED, was pervasive, and despite the editors’ best intentions of keeping the dictionary up to date, likely more than 50 percent of the original entries remain unchanged. Dollinger argued that perhaps the tagline “The definitive record of the English language” should more accurately read “The definitive record of the English language (as seen by Oxford [mostly] men largely of the [upper] middle class).” For instance, the dictionary has long been criticized for relying on literary texts for examples of usage. Dollinger offered the example of “sea-dingle,” whose OED entry reads as follows:

sea-dingle n. (now only arch.) an abyss or deep in the sea.

a1240 Sowles Warde in Cott. Hom. 263 His runes ant his domes þe derne beoð ant deopre þen eni sea dingle [= abyss of the sea: cf. Ps. xxxv. 6 Vulg. Judicia tua abyssus multa].

c1931 W.H. Auden in M. Roberts New Signatures (1932) 30 Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.

Yet, as Seth Lerer has noted, W.H. Auden (an Oxford man) “mined the OED for archaic, pungent words.” Does his use of the word really reflect common usage? Not, said Dollinger, if you look at the Urban Dictionary entry for the term:

1. sea-dingle

A sex act involving two people in which salmon roe is used as lubrication facilitating anal penetration by a penis.

Yeah, I was out camping with my wife. I got lucky when we went fishing and then again when we went back to the tent. She was totally down for a sea-dingle.

(This practice of recycling old terms in a “reification of literary writers” brought to my mind this XKCD cartoon on citogenesis.)

Dollinger pointed out a problem with the way the OED describes itself:

the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society.

What is “English culture,” and what is “our”? In other words, who owns English? As early as the late 1960s, linguist David Crystal noted that, in order to be a comprehensive record of English, the OED would have to include World Englishes. Today the number of people who speak English as a second language outnumber native speakers five to one, and they use a kind of global English for trade and other interactions. Who are native speakers to say that their terms—handy for “cell phone” in Euro-English, prepone for “rescheduling to an earlier time” in Indo-English, and batchmate for “cohort member” in Philippine English—aren’t proper English usage?

As far as Dollinger is concerned, the OED is at a crossroads and can go down one of three paths:

  1. Take an Inner Circle focus (i.e., UK, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa).
  2. Retreat to focus on British English only (which would in itself be a challenging task, owing to the variations of English spoken across the country).
  3. Include all World Englishes, in which case the dictionary should treat the Inner, Outer and Expanding circles on an equal footing. If its aim is truly to be the “principal dictionary of record for the English language throughout the lifetime of all current users of the language,” as the preface to the third edition of the OED claims, this path is the only logical choice.

Dollinger closed by encouraging all of us to check out the exhibition at Rare Books and Special Collections.Road to the OED poster

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