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John Simpson - Chief Editor OED

Cricket and the Queen Mum: the OED’s Chief Editor discusses some fascinating words

Yesterday it was announced that John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, will be retiring in October 2013. The full press release can be read on the OED website, and it seems an appropriate time to ask John Simpson to discuss some of the more fascinating words and expressions he has worked on:

It’s hard to pick our favourites from several decades of lexicography. You always feel an affinity with the first word you edit – Queen Mum was one of my first. I remember hunting high and low for early evidence for the expression back in those days, only to see the current update project take the date of first use further back to the early years of the present Queen’s reign (1954).


This wasn’t even on the starting blocks when I began working on the OED in 1976: it just wasn’t something you’d be familiar with. In fact, since then we’ve added about 8,000 words and meanings that were not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye in 1976. And the big surprise was that there really was an isolated 1917 example waiting to be found – which we duly did!


Newspaper was an interesting word. We managed to push the first recorded use back to 1667, and have been able to document many of those compounds of newspaper which arose in the 19th century: newspaper advertising, column, correspondent, etc – each of which tells you a little piece of what newspapers have meant to us over the years.


I played for Holton and Wheatley cricket club for many years in Oxfordshire, so I shouldn’t forget the major update for the entry for cricket. We found written evidence for the word as far back as 1575 – and that involved activating a researcher in a German library to check the only copy of the source!


I shouldn’t overlook the massive struggles we had in the department – mainly by the OED’s etymologists – with this mammoth of a tiny word. The resultant entry is effectively a short symphony on the way to be, is, was, and all of its forms have been used in English over the centuries.


Human was a big entry, worked on alongside humane – as they interlink at various points along their journey through the centuries. How should we define the human condition? Would we capture human interest? And could you form a human pyramid, as people have apparently been doing since at least 1798!


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