An OED editor answers some more of your questions
When we took to Twitter and Facebook to ask you to send us your questions about language and lexicography the last time, we received so many submissions that it wasn’t possible to answer all of them in just one blog post. Therefore, we have included more of your questions below — as well as the most recent ones from our latest question-and-answer session.
Read on to find out what’s the most interesting word our Senior Editor has worked on, and whether she ever feels tempted to make up words in order to win a game of Scrabble.
— LF (@LeeTFreeman) July 22, 2016
We do recognize simplified spellings. It’s true that thru doesn’t have its own OED entry, but it is listed as a variant form at the entry for through, just like tho is at though. Others that we include which are similar are cos, spose, and nuff.
#AskAnOEDEditor Hardest part of your job? Did you ever think you’d grow up to be an OED editor?
— Grace Burrowes (@GraceBurrowes) May 5, 2016
Taking these in reverse order, quite simply no! I did not. I’ve always been interested in words and can clearly remember the first dictionary I owned (a present from my grandma) and she would encourage me to look up words that I didn’t know the meaning of. But there’s a massive leap from there to actually being someone who is a dictionary editor. Dictionaries are such a large part of our lives and often we don’t think about the fact that there are people responsible for putting them together and defining the words. We take that part for granted a bit. At university, as part of one of my courses, there was a module on dictionaries and we all thought “imagine being the person who did that”. Little did I know…
Hardest part of the job? Well, you could get a different answer if you asked me on a different day. Sometimes it is finding the evidence for a word, particularly when that word has many different meanings and you are looking for something very specific. But usually it is finding that elusive word for your definition which makes everything fall into place. Sometimes the search doesn’t take long, but on occasion it can be hard to pin down the right word. Jazz hands was one which took a bit of time trying to describe the action in a way that didn’t sound strange. But I got there in the end!
— Kirsty Gibson (@kegibson10) July 22, 2016
Many entries in the OED are over 100 years old and revision is a mixture of expanding on the existing entry, considering how the word might have changed since the entry was first written, assessing evidence which the original editors may not have had access to, and, where necessary, rewriting the definitions so that they are suitable for and understandable to a 21st-century audience. That’s the short answer. For a detailed breakdown of the processes that are involved, see former Chief Editor John Simpson’s explanation.
— ed stack (@stackartist) May 10, 2016
Perish the thought. My aforementioned grandma was a Scrabble fiend and would not approve if I made up words. It’s true that people seem afraid to play Scrabble with me, as if I somehow know all the words. I don’t, and as I often point out to them, my job is to research words which are ‘new’ and not yet in the dictionary. Plus, it really depends on the letters that you have in front of you and how good you are at anagrams. As for adding words to win at Scrabble, also perish the thought.
What tips do you have for aspiring lexicographers? #AskAnOEDEditor
— The Almighty Word (@WordTheGreat) July 20, 2016
Getting a degree is a good place to start. While English is probably the most obvious subject to study, my colleagues have degrees in a variety of subjects from Maths to History, taking in various languages along the way. A sensitivity to words and how they are used, and an interest in language in general, are essential, as is the ability to write clearly. Then it is a case of looking out for job vacancies as they occur.
— Rachel Gibson (@Rachellllouise) May 5, 2016
This may seem like a dull answer, but it was probably the verb run. The word itself isn’t especially interesting on the face of it, but what was fascinating was how productive it is. It is used in so many different ways that it seems you can run anything and everything. Not bad for a three letter word.
— Shaun aka MAW (@MrAlwaysWrite) May 7, 2016
Annoy is probably pushing it. It’s more a case of wry amusement, especially when the resulting sentence is then ambiguous in an entertaining way. I do remember it being drummed into me at school that you never put a comma before and in a sentence, so I can understand why people don’t do it. No-one explained that sometimes there are circumstances in which you really do need that comma.
What is the effect of not having an official academy on the English language?
Creightanya Brewley via Facebook
Interesting. It’s hard to be sure as English has never had anything like that. You could argue that it frees us of any constraints when it comes to neologisms, although some people might think that wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. Some people might feel that it would help to halt what they see as declining standards. I’m not convinced by this. I think those who find grammar and spelling easy can find it difficult to appreciate that it isn’t the case for everyone. I’m not sure having an academy would suddenly make everything clearer and easier.
— Nicki Thomas (@AdverseCamber) July 18, 2016
Both spellings have been in use in English, but kibosh is more usual now. Dickens even used kye-bosh. Sadly, its origins are shrouded in mystery.
— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) July 22, 2016
If I stretch my mind far enough, I can just about remember. It was park – the noun – quickly followed by the verb. That was when I was a revising editor; it makes me sad to report that I cannot remember the first new word that I drafted for inclusion in the dictionary.
Since when British English adopted the American figure a billion equal to a thousand million instead of a million million?#AskAnOEDEditor
— Shah Nawaz Khan (@link2shah) July 21, 2016
Since the mid-20th century, billion being equal to a thousand million has been increasingly used in British English, especially in technical writing and, more recently, in journalism. The original sense (‘a million million’) is still in use.
— Adam Altogether (@mozartface) May 17, 2016
It is more common now to see breathtaking as a solid word, without a hyphen. You will still see examples with the hyphen though. It is arguably a matter of personal taste, so long as you are consistent in your choice.
How is the Word of the Day chosen? @OlyKim
— Kim Mounger Storbeck (@OlyKim) July 19, 2016
Each OED Word of the Day is selected in the hope that it will be of interest to those who read it, and tell them something they didn’t already know. It might have an interesting etymology; it might be surprisingly old, or have an unexpected sense; quite often, it will be no more or less than an unusual word that we think will make people smile. Sometimes we connect words with certain days, to celebrate sporting events, national holidays, notable birthdays, and so on; often the link isn’t blindingly obvious, and we like to think that those who make the connection will find it entertaining.
There are also some practical things the OED editors who select the words have to consider: each one must be a standalone headword, one that is family-friendly and not overly long in terms of the senses and sub-entries it contains. But really, when selecting the Word of the Day, all we want to do is show off the OED’s rich content, and provide a moment of stimulation or amusement each day to people who, like us, love to learn more about the English language. (Subscribe here!)
— LateTweeter (@LateTweeter) May 4, 2016
Both uninvite and disinvite are in the OED, although neither has been updated since publication of the first edition. Both words have much the same meaning, so the choice is yours as to which you prefer to use.
#AskAnOEDEditor Do you ever demote a word from the OED? Say, when a neologism doesn’t have the legs you expected?
— Wiley Wood (@wileywoodnorfol) May 5, 2016
Never. As a historical dictionary charting the development of a word in English, once a word is included in the OED, it never comes out. That’s part of the reason for the stringent criteria which a word has to meet before we will include it. We need several independent examples of a word in use and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time. The exact time span and number of examples may vary: for instance, one word may be included on the evidence of only a few examples, spread out over a long period of time, while another may gather momentum very quickly, resulting in a wide range of evidence in a shorter space of time.
How is “tragedy” related to goats and the part of the ear called the “tragus”? I can’t figure it out. Thanks! #AskAnOEDEditor
— Stanley Sack (@stanley_sack) May 5, 2016
The Ancient Greek word for he-goat is ‘tragos’. The Ancient Greek word for tragedy (which is the ultimate etymon of the English word) is ‘tragoidia’, which is apparently from tragos (‘he-goat’) + oide (‘ode’) perhaps so called because a he-goat was offered as a prize in the earliest contests for writing tragedy, or perhaps because the chorus danced around a he-goat before it was ritually sacrificed. Nobody really knows, and some have even doubted that the first element shows the word for he-goat at all.
The same Ancient Greek word is the etymon of the word tragus denoting the small raised cartilage in front of the ear-hole. The reason being that it is typically (in old men) tufted with hairs, making it, apparently, look a bit like a goat’s beard.
What is the correct word, Bigfoot or Sasquatch? They seem to be used interchangeable. I am assuming one is more correct than the other.
Michael Lorezen, via Facebook
The words are generally used interchangeably and denote the same supposed creature. However, Sasquatch is more commonly used in Canada.