How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word “linguaphile” (meaning word lover or language lover) on and the Free Dictionary, but it’s not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. “The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission,” said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

“The Internet poses problems,” said Weiner. “We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we’ve tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We’ve occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don’t like doing that.”

Abley explains:

When the OED documents a word, it wants the result to be checkable. That’s difficult to achieve with language on the Internet, which is ephemeral by its very nature…

The OED is conservative in its approach to language, keeping out newfangled words until they have been around for a few years at least. But once a word gets into the dictionary, it stays there forever.

Graeme Diamond, principal editor of the New Words group at the Oxford English Dictionary, said:

“People would be wrong if they thought of us typically reading something in the paper one day and sticking it into the dictionary the next. We want to resist putting ephemera in, because the OED never takes anything out. If it’s been recorded in the dictionary already, it will stay there.”

Abley describes how new words and meanings are added to the dictionary:

His (Diamond’s) unit contains a handful of people in both Oxford and New York. But not all their work is devoted to finding and defining neologisms. They also work hand in hand with the current “revision project”, noticing meanings that are absent from the existing entries and, Diamond explained, “parachuting in to fill the gaps”…

Where Dr Johnson looked for his examples in classic literature, the OED’s editors now find grist for their mill in publications like Cosmopolitan and Discount Store News. In 2007 they sought the help of the British public in tracing the origins of common terms like “wolf whistle”, “Bloody Mary”, “marital aid” and “loo”, all of which slipped into the language discreetly enough to puzzle lexicographers…

Somewhere in OUP’s vast buildings, Diamond said, is a room full of the original quotation slips. Venture in, pick up an old scrap of paper, and you might be staring at “the unreadable writing of some reverend from the nineteenth century. And that tradition does still carry on.”…

Despite the growth of a computer-produced corpus of the English language, dozens of volunteers continue to read for the OED. “The really prodigious ones”, in Diamond’s words, are paid. One of his colleagues decides what fields of experience the dictionary has underrepresented in the past; he then chooses books in those fields and distributes them to people who will read for language, not just meaning. The readers work through the pages, highlighter at the ready, and when they notice a word used in an intriguing way, either figurative or literal, they mark up the text… the highlighted books are returned to the OED’s “data capture department”. If a usage passes muster, an editor will work on the word in Pasadena – a system of electronic editing whose letters are said to stand for “Perfect All-Singing All-Dancing Editorial and Notation Application”.

Some of the trickiest questions that editors face involve loanwords from foreign languages. “The difficulty always is,” Diamond said, “at what point does it become English? One of our principles would be, is it being used outside the region?”

Dictionaries covering specific subjects – computers, let’s say, or the stock market – may more readily accept new words than a general dictionary like the OED because they have so much less to accept, says Abley. He adds:

Before I met him, I had imagined that Diamond’s job would be, so to speak, to gather up smart young words that were roaming the countryside and to welcome them into a permanent home. Now I was starting to see him differently; as a gatekeeper, whose chief role was to stand guard beside an overcrowded building and keep words out. He took my metaphor and ran with it: “It’s a bit of both, I’m afraid. There’s a “come one, come all” invitation. But we do have a door policy. And it’s not in the way words are dressed – it’s to do with how many mates they can bring along. The invitation is for all. But not all of them get in.”

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