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By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

What the pyramids were to ancient Egyptian civilization, the Oxford English Dictionary is to English-language scholarship – the most impressive collective achievement of our civilization. The difference is that inside the OED pulses something alive, growing, and evolving.

Richard Lederer (1994)

Brace yourselves. The following paragraph is now endorsed by the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

Surfing has its advantages. You can have a bad hair day, or even do the full monty, and nobody in the chat room will ever know as long as the webcam is off. But, doh!, those cookies and that 24/7 spam. It can make you sigh like crazy, if not actually cyberphobic.

OK. So editors at Oxford University Press didn't really approve the sentences. CBC News Online takes full responsibility for content and presentation.

But those words and phrases in bold italics? They are among roughly 250 terms recently added to a slowly evolving new edition of the OED, which calls itself "the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium."

It's a boast that many people on both sides of the Atlantic would probably not dispute. Some might quibble, however, with the way journalists covered the announcement about the updated definitions.


Last month (June 2001), several news agencies claimed that television cartoon clod Homer Simpson had finally belched into the big time of lexicography.

But Homer's trademark doh! actually appeared in The New Oxford Dictionary of English three years ago. It's defined on page 545 as an informal exclamation "used to comment on an action perceived as foolish or stupid. (For example), 'He had approached the wrong set of supporters. Doh!'"

So the significance of the statement issued by Oxford University Press wasn't that doh! was in one of its many dictionaries, or even that the term's definition was now longer: "Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish. Also (usually mildly derogatory) implying that another person has said or done something foolish."

Homer's triumph was that doh! had made it into THE dictionary of English dictionaries – the mighty OED, which is so vast that it occupies several library shelves, and which takes so much time to update thoroughly that only two complete editions have ever been issued: one in 1928, and the other in 1989.

The real news was that for the first time in history Oxford had issued a list of fresh entries spanning the alphabet, from acid jazz to zero tolerance, for a new edition of the OED that is still years away from being published.

Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

Samuel Johnson (1784)


Some people will undoubtedly welcome the arrival of words like cybersquatter and webliography, arguing that change is natural and healthy. Others will cringe, repeating complaints about the impermanence and impoverishment of English that date back centuries. To them, the appearance of duh, dumb down and cheesy will all be sadly appropriate.

Regardless of which camp you're in, one of the more striking aspects of Oxford's latest project to update its colossal dictionary is the contrast between plodding scholarship and the lightning-fast technology that many of us rely on today.

It seems fitting that one of the terms that has slowly wiggled its way into the great treasury of words is a common description of a generally reliable but comparatively slow form of communication: the postal service.

The fact that snail mail is only now being officially added sums up the slow pace of exhaustively researched lexicography.

Some other dictionaries, including the 1998 Canadian Oxford, already include the noun, identifying it as slang for "the ordinary postal system as opposed to the electronic mail system." But such a brief entry would seem out of place in the OED, which prides itself on historic details, including the best known evidence of when a term first surfaced as well as specific examples of how it has been used by writers.

No other language has anything even remotely approaching (the OED) in scope. Because of its existence, more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world.

Bill Bryson (1990)


The "O" in OED certainly doesn't stand for Ordinary. The origins of the dictionary itself are as fascinating as any etymology found inside. It began as a proposal by The Philological Society in Britain in 1858. Four volumes were planned, with supporters optimistic the task could be completed in 10 years.

But the first instalment (A to ANT) wasn't ready until 1884, and it took several more decades for the rest of the dictionary to appear. All 10 volumes were finally finished in 1928 – 70 years after the project was first approved. There's a good chance you've never used the last entry in a sentence – zyxt, an Old Kentish term for to see.

The Philological Society's masterpiece was almost published by Macmillan, but negotiations broke down in 1876. Oxford University Press signed on in 1879, the same year legendary editor James Murray took over the project. His stewardship of the work, and friendship with a convicted killer who contributed thousands of citations from an asylum, are chronicled in Simon Winchester's 1998 book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Why did it take so long to finish the First Edition? Murray's suggestion that the title be expanded to include the phrase "on Historical Principles" sums up a big part of the delay.

The OED was not merely going to list English words as far back as 1150 AD, and to offer pronunciations, definitions, as well as Latin, Greek or other roots where applicable. It also intended to cite passages from published material illustrating how every term had been used in a given context over the centuries, and to include the earliest known record of each word's appearance in print.

The result was a remarkable collection of nearly 415,000 definitions and 1.8 million quotations spread over 15,490 pages. As the language continued to evolve, several supplements were published in separate volumes over the next 50 years.

In 1989 the OED combined everything into a mostly unrevised Second Edition of 20 books containing just over 615,000 definitions and 2.4 million quotations. Oxford has produced several smaller "concise" and "abridged" versions over the years. But there is no other dictionary even remotely like the main OED in the world, and a Third Edition is now well underway.

It should be understood that fully comprehensive coverage of all elements of the language is a chimera. That said, the content of the (Oxford English Dictionary) is certainly comprehensive within reasonable bounds.

OED Chief Editor John Simpson (2000)


Before he retired from "the great theatre of lexicography" about 15 years ago, OED Chief Editor Robert Burchfield wrote some essays about the challenges of his job. "It has always been discouraging to see the waves of new words lapping in behind as one dashed one's frame against the main flood," he said.

New technology, however, offered the promise of compiling and comparing entries more quickly, as well as updating the main dictionary on a regular basis.

"The Murrayan plan, a product of the 1870s, will be used as a template for this gigantic electronic structure of the future," Burchfield explained in his 1989 book Unlocking The English Language.

"It is a noble plan, and it is a stroke of luck that the work of many scholars and men of letters of the last hundred years has provided a suitable foundation on which scholars of the future can build with their capacious computers."

The Second Edition was issued on CD-ROM in 1992, more than 60 kilograms of paper replaced by about 550 megabytes of text. An updated version appeared in 1999. Last year, the OED became available on the Internet, even though the term Internet wasn't officially added to the dictionary itself until a few weeks ago. The online version now has 23 volumes, and is expanding every quarter.

Big dictionaries are nothing but storerooms with infrequently visited and dusty corners.

Richard Bailey (1991)


As Burchfield predicted, lexicography has entered a new age. For the first time, new words can be added and old ones revised with a few keystrokes – although the expectation of rigorous scholarship hasn't changed. In a 1999 interview posted on AskOxford.com, his replacement, Chief Editor John Simpson, said it still takes about five years before a new word makes it into the slowly swelling OED.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of data now available. In the old days a lexicographer might begin research with 100 handwritten, well researched submissions from reliable volunteers who had been reading books, magazines, newspapers, and other English publications from around the world. Now a computer search engine can retrieve 10,000 citations of a single word in seconds. The challenge is sorting through what's relevant and important.

Although some terms on the OED's June list have appeared in condensed or abridged Oxford dictionaries (including World Wide Web, WWW, and just plain Web), others have not (for instance, dot com, also spelled .com).

The fact that The New Oxford Dictionary of English, published in 1998, ignores dot.com but bothers to include an archaic meaning of dot ("a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband") doth show (another entry in the same tome) the problem of trying to capture a living language.

For an inkling of the OED's new look, here is about 10 per cent of the roster officially welcomed into the dictionary with fanfare last month, on what Oxford University Press called a "red-letter day":


channel surf


control freak




dot com

double click


dumb down

feelgood factor

full monty

functional food

genetically modified

home page

hypertext link



quality time

road rage

search engine

serial killer

serial monogamist


snail mail


urban myth

video on demand


There are 20 other words that begin with cyber, and 10 more that start with web. Many terms, like peace accord and caregiver, are so common some people might be surprised they're being added only now. Others, like information highway and millennium bug, seem a bit odd for the opposite reason – they're words in retirement, soon to become fossils. The fact that year 2000 and Y2K were both added to the OED in the summer of 2001 speaks volumes.

Doh! is now part of Oxford's magnum opus, and those who care to can glean a great deal. For instance, "The Simpsons" actually began as a segment on another American TV program, "The Tracey Ullman Show." Homer's doh! was first heard during a short episode called "Punching Bag" on Nov. 27, 1988.

The word didn't actually appear on paper. The script simply asked for an "annoyed grunt" by actor Dan Castellaneta, who credits Laurel and Hardy films for his inspiration. Castellaneta took James Finlayson's euphemism for damn ("Do-o-o-o") and speeded it up. Over the years the word has been spelled several ways, including d'oh.

(Samuel Johnson) quickly learned the lesson that all dictionary-makers learn sooner or later, that a dictionary is out of date on the day of its publication.

Ronald Wardhaugh (1999)


James Murray, the titan behind the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, considered himself "a man of science … interested in that branch of anthropology which deals with the history of human speech." Like Samuel Johnson a century and a half earlier, he accepted the evolution of language as both natural and inevitable. Unlike Johnson, he died years before his dictionary was finished.

In 1977, Elisabeth Murray wrote about her grandfather's adventures and hardships. The biography was called Caught in the Web of Words – a title that seems particularly appropriate for lexicographers today.

Only one word was ever actually lost during the 70 years it took to complete the First Edition, according to Simon Winchester: bondmaid, an old term to describe young female slaves. It had appeared in Johnson's groundbreaking dictionary in the 1750s, but Murray mislaid it among the millions of slips of paper that filled a crowded study he called his Scriptorium.

The oversight wasn't noticed until after the volume Battentlie – Bozzom had been published, and bondmaid had to wait decades until the rest of the dictionary was completed before editors could find a spot for it. The word finally showed up in the OED's first supplement, printed in 1933.

In an electronic age, dictionaries don't need old-fashioned bindings. Some of the other constraints have been loosened, if not lifted, too.

Although computers have changed lexicography considerably, Simpson (John, not Homer) has warned people against unrealistic expectations. There won't be daily updates, and the OED will never be truly comprehensive.

"There are a number of myths about the Oxford English Dictionary," he writes in the Third Edition's preface, now posted on the Internet. "One of the most prevalent … is that it includes every word, and every meaning of every word, which has ever formed part of the English language. Such an objective could never be fully achieved."

For those eager to get their hands on the next instalment, however, the OED plans to put a list of new entries on its Web site every three months. The Third Edition, originally scheduled to be completed in 2005, is not expected to be ready now until at least 2010.

It's impossible to predict what Oxford's editors will say if any errors or omissions are discovered along the road. Maybe they'll mutter doh!. Unlike the blunder with bondmaid, however, we won't have to wait decades for a correction.

(July 17, 2001)

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To find out more about the Oxford English Dictionary's Third Edition visit the OED Web site

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