An OED editor answers your questions
We recently asked you to provide questions about lexicography and language for a Senior Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – and you certainly had a lot to ask. We’ve picked some of the best questions, and… here are the answers!
in a bit of a dilemma. why was 'dilemma' spelled 'dilemna'? is the latter an acceptable spelling? #AskAnOEDEditor
— HolyFamilyRm214 (@HolyFamilyTCDSB) May 9, 2016
Although you will find many of examples of dilemma spelled dilemna, we would probably describe these as spelling errors, rather than evidence of an older spelling or an accepted variant. Dilemma has a Greek etymology, coming from di- ‘twice’ and lemma ‘premise’ and the reason for the mistaken ‘n’ isn’t immediately apparent. It could be that people are treating it like there is a silent n, as in damn and solemn, or damnation and solemnity (and in these last two words, the n is, of course, pronounced).
— Karen Feagin (@kcfeagin) May 8, 2016
The short answer is that English has done this probably since about the 14th century, and probably to make it more distinct from surrounding text (rather than for any egocentric reasons), as i could easily get lost amid the other small strokes (technically ‘minims’) of manuscript writing.
The slightly longer answer is that I is a reduced version of the earlier form ich. In the 13th century (which seems to be the start of the story for this form) it looks like I was frequently written with a small letter. This is even allowing for editorial choices – as the OED entry for I notes “Capitalization in Middle English examples frequently reflects the editorial choices of modern editors of texts, rather than the practice of the manuscripts”.
By the 14th century, the word was usually written with capital I (again, allowing for editorial choices). In fact the shape of this capital would normally look like capital J, since I and J were not distinct letters; so, for example, the letter used for the first person pronoun was exactly the same as the one used for the initial letter of John, James, etc. as well as It, If, etc. at the beginning of a sentence. This continued in print until about 1650, at which point the letters I and J large and small were made into two separate letters.
— Koji Mukai (@foaqr) May 9, 2016
Summer in this sense goes back to early Old English. It was used in the Vespasian Psalter, which is an illuminated Psalter, written in Latin but containing an interlinear gloss in Old English.
— Mary (@Mmarymonkey) May 8, 2016
Although some people have read the OED through from cover to cover, it’s not really what it was intended for. As an editor responsible for putting new words into the dictionary, I tend to concentrate on the particular section on the alphabet that I am working on. If you are working on updating the text, then you will end up reading the whole section you are working within. To give an example, I worked on the new senses of the verb RUN, in conjunction with a colleague who was responsible for updating the text of the first edition of the OED (the entry was first published in 1909, so it was over 100 years old). The final result has over 600 senses, all of which my colleague will have read – quotations and all. I only read a fraction of it.
Being a new words lexicographer, I find that I am constantly listening out for new words, or words that I think might not yet be in the OED. This can be when I am reading or having a conversation with a friend. I often stop the conversation mid-point and say “what was that word?” or when reading I might come across an unfamiliar word. I have to admit that’s always a little disappointing when I find that the word is already included, and that I haven’t uncovered a new usage.
— Mary (@Mmarymonkey) May 8, 2016
It can be difficult to keep track of exactly what you are working on sometimes. You definitely forget some of the words that you worked on, even if at the time they were all-consuming. All of the original text will require updating, but of course we have to choose some kind of order in which to tackle the task. We’ve tended to pick words which we know have undergone significant development in meaning from when they were first in use (digital, wireless) or words which encapsulate big concepts (love, time).
You can read more about the process on the OED site.
— Riffle (@keeFS) May 8, 2016
It’s impossible to give a definitive answer to this variety of question, as we date the oldest texts according to periodization, such as early Old English (up to 950), Old English (950-1100), late Old English (1100-1150). This is because the period in which these manuscripts were produced is imprecise as regards dating. Many things were recorded in manuscripts later than when they were actually composed.
Some of the sources which date from the early Old English period are the Vespasian Psalter (as mentioned elsewhere), the earliest parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Bald’s Leechbook (a collection of medical recipes), as well as some glossaries and administrative documents. Of course, we are by no means looking at the earliest stage of the language. It had already been spoken in England for centuries when it was first written down in any quantity. Explore our Aspects of English page for more information.
#AskAnOEDEditor what's the oldest sourced word in the OED?
— Andrew Seccull MRICS (@APSeccull) May 6, 2016
Just as it is impossible to give a definitive answer to “the oldest source” question, it is also impossible to say what the oldest sourced word is. We can say that it will be from one of these early Old English sources, and that these words include important or basic concepts vital to life (like meat, meaning ‘food’, water, fire, work), names of plants and animals (like quickbeam and mouse), as well as some concepts from Christianity, since much early writing was done in monasteries – and of course some personal pronouns and other function words (like and, but).
— Mary (@Mmarymonkey) May 8, 2016
The OED never removes an entry. As it is a historical dictionary, it provides a record of the language, and traces the journey of a word from the point at which it entered the English language (in so far as that can be ascertained) to the present day, or to the point at which it fell out of usage and became obsolete (if relevant). Any significant changes or developments in meaning along the way are recorded and exemplified. Smaller print dictionaries, which tend to be dictionaries of current English, can and do sometimes remove words which are obsolete or very rare, for space reasons. As suggested by the question, it seems unlikely this would ever happen for an online publication. If we run out of room on the Internet, I think we are all in trouble.
How do you decide when to make a hyphenated word all one word? #AskAnOEDEditor
— Wiley Wood (@wileywoodnorfol) May 7, 2016
It’s all down to the evidence, and crucially, the evidence available at the time of writing or editing. The use of hyphens has decreased greatly over the last 100 years or so. As a general rule, the hyphen in a hyphenated word is abandoned as the word becomes familiar and widely accepted. Examples of words which used to be hyphenated and are now more commonly found as one solid word are email, website, and eardrum.
Of course, hyphenation can have a useful function in distinguishing word pairs which might otherwise look identical, like reform and re-form (meaning ‘to form again’). It can also be useful to distinguish noun and verb use – consider the sentence ‘She used a rubber stamp to rubber stamp the document’.
— Adam Benjamin (@adambenjiman) May 7, 2016
Both of the forms are acceptable in standard British English for a large number of words (there are some exception like capsize and advise). The –ize form is often seen as an Americanism, and while it is true that –ize spellings are standard in American English, this does not mean that their use is an Americanism. The –ize form has always been an accepted spelling in British use, and was actually for a long time generally preferred. All Oxford dictionaries, including the OED, show both forms where they are in use, but give -ize first as it reflects both the origin (ultimately from the Greek verb stem –izein) and the pronunciation more closely, while indicating that -ise is an allowable variant.
— Patrick Glavee (@PatrickGlavee) May 7, 2016
Doing this job makes you aware of how many words have lost their original meaning, or how many different meanings a single word has. The way that some words have changed their meanings tends to annoy some people, but in fact there are so many words that don’t have their original meaning now, or it certainly isn’t the core meaning in modern English. Nice used to mean ‘silly’ or ‘foolish’; meat used to mean food of any kind, not just animal flesh (and still does in some regional use); terrific originally meant ‘causing terror’; silly meant ‘worthy‘ or ‘good’, and so on. For many of these meanings, there is no-one around who will remember a time when they were in use, and because most of us weren’t around to witness the shift, it doesn’t strike us as remarkable that these words don’t mean quite the same as they used to.
How has the editing process changed now that the OED is largely an online resource? #AskAnOEDEditor
— Wiley Wood (@wileywoodnorfol) May 6, 2016
At its heart, the editing process adheres to the same principles as it always has done. The medium itself has changed quite fundamentally – we use computers now, of course, and we are no longer confined by the limits of the printed page. One of the most gratifying things about being an online resource is that the work we do is published reasonably soon after we have worked on it, and, as an ongoing research project, you have to opportunity to update as the language develops or as new material becomes available.
In additional, the way we construct our entries has been changed by the online world. Editors have so much more access to material than ever before, and which our editorial predecessors could not have imagined. For them, access to a regional newspaper in the heartland of the USA would have come only from someone sending it to them; access to 11th century manuscripts would have meant a trip to the library. Now, we have so many of these things at our fingertips. With so much available comes the danger of information overload, but balancing that is the awareness that there is still so much out there to which we don’t yet have access.
— Daniel Robert Block (@danielrbrtblock) May 9, 2016
This can change, so if you were to ask this next month, you might get a completely different answer. In the last month, the words that have been most looked up are: kilig, bling, foodie, bada bing, and love.
— Siân Richards (@sianer76) May 8, 2016
This can be one of the hardest questions for a lexicographer to answer, as there can be all sorts of different reasons for the choice, and we do get asked the question a lot. The answer I always tend to give is mondegreen. Even if you think you don’t know the word, it is almost certain that you will know the concept. A mondegreen is a misunderstood word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of a song lyric. I love that a word exists for such a phenomenon, but it’s even better when you discover that the word itself is a mondegreen. It comes from a mishearing of the phrase ‘laid him on the green’ in a ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray. The mishearing was “they hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen”.
There are other words I would count in my list of favourites, like rapscallion and plush. These are mostly to do with the way that they sound, rather than what they mean or signify.