Foreign words in the Oxford English Dictionary

Statement dated 27 November 2012

“The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) project, which has its roots in the 19th Century, was from the outset very much ahead of its time in its project to accurately describe the English language by means of evidence. Throughout its history, it has included words from around the world, and as such it helps to highlight the international relations that English-speakers have maintained over the centuries, from the first days of foreign travel and exploration right through to today.

“Part of the reason for its success in capturing international English is the way in which content has been gathered. As far back as 1859 it began involving the public in the UK and overseas in collecting new material for the dictionary, making it the first crowd-sourced reference work.

“Decisions on which words to include in the OED have changed over the course of its 180-year history. This includes choices on which words ‘borrowed’ from other languages should be included, and where quotations should be taken from. These decisions have been influenced by a range of factors, including space constraints in print editions.

“Former Chief Editor Robert Burchfield, himself a New Zealander, was insistent that the dictionary should expand its coverage of international words in English, and although he omitted minor terms from the Supplement which he was revising and extending, he added many thousands of more fully researched international entries.

“The OED has continued to maintain an international perspective, and one of its current policies is to re-evaluate any terms which were left out of the Supplement by Burchfield.

“It was nearly two decades ago, when the editorial policy of the third edition of the OED was being formulated, that it was decided that the small number of items which had been omitted from the 1933 Supplement while it was being revised by Robert Burchfield and his staff, on the grounds that they were at that time considered marginal, should appear in the new edition. Among the items of this kind that have recently been republished as part of OED Online are the following:

about and about

“In many cases the word is still clearly only of marginal importance; in a few cases the word has subsequently proved to be less ephemeral than Robert Burchfield thought. Making such judgements is always difficult: in 1903 the editors of the first edition of the OED famously decided not to include an entry for the very new word radium, an omission which they were able to make good in the 1933 Supplement in just the same way that we are now adding entries for these other words. Every word is re-evaluated in the light of the evidence now available to us.

“It’s important to stress that the reason Robert Burchfield decided not to include these words was not because they were foreign, but because it was preferable to give the limited space (and effort) available to some of the many other words that he had to consider for inclusion. The above list of examples shows that words of all kinds, not just foreign words or words from non-British varieties of English, might be assessed as marginal.

“Words are constantly being added to the dictionary from every corner of the English-speaking world, often as a consequence of material sent in by a worldwide group of volunteers. This continues today through the online OED Appeals campaign, which allows members of the public all over the world to contribute to the origins of words, assisting the OED in its project to record the English language past and present.”

For media enquiries please contact:

Nicola Burton
01865 353911