From A to zyxt, a labour of love

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 May, 2004, 12:00am

IN THE BEGINNING was the word, well, more than 400,000 of them. And they were good English, but their definitions were incomplete.

And so the Philological Society of London began, in 1857, one of the greatest endeavours in the English language; to chart the meanings and histories of the words and publish them in one vast book. We know that book today as the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED.

It was created over seven decades through the labour of love of thousands of people, many contributing voluntarily. James Murray, the first editor who made the dream of the London Philological Society a reality through his painstaking scholarship and organisation, is the name most closely associated with the dictionary. The most infamous is a deranged American surgeon and murderer, William Minor, who whiled away his time in an asylum for the criminally insane searching the world of literature for early uses of English vocabulary.

In what was described by British author Arnold Bennett as the longest sensational serial ever produced, the dictionary was published in instalments, starting in 1884 with the words A to Ant. It took until 1928 to reach the last word - 'zyxt' (an obsolete Kentish word meaning 'to see') - when all 10 volumes of the first edition were published.

For Oxford University Press (OUP), its publisher, it was the beginning. The prestige and expertise invested in the largest English dictionary in the world, and the one to most comprehensively record the history of the language, helped propel OUP into pole position as a publisher of dictionaries. Chambers may be preferred for Scrabble and crosswords and Longman a well-established competitor in the English learning market, but, for many, the word dictionary is synonymous with Oxford.

Oxford, which claims to have the oldest university publishing house in the world, dating back to 1478, is a natural home for dictionary-making. Lexicographers can make use of its Bodleien Library, one of the few to have copies of almost every book ever published. Many learned dons have helped in the creation and updating of the OED - J.R.R. Tolkein, for instance, provided difficult definitions for words beginning with 'W' of Scandinavian origin, such as 'walrus'. Later he could advise on the word 'hobbit'.

John Simpson, the OED's current managing editor, readily admits that many entries in his tome are long out-of-date. Almost as soon as the 10-volume New Oxford Dictionary, as it was initially known, was published in 1928, work started on the supplements for new words. The more comprehensive 2nd edition was published in 1989 to incorporate thousands of new terms. The additions doubled the size of the original.

But most of the original 19th century definitions have remained unchanged, some now unhelpful anachronisms. Balloon, for instance, is defined as 'an airtight envelope of paper, silk, or similar material'.

'We recognise that language has moved on,' Mr Simpson said. 'Advances in scholarship also mean a lot more is known about the language than when the original entries were put together at the end of the 19th century.' A full makeover is under way. 'We are taking the 20 volumes, which are largely text written about 100 years ago with modern material integrated, and are completely, comprehensively revising them,' he said.

OUP has committed #34 million (HK$474.78 million) for the revision, a global exercise that almost matches the original ambition of Murray, and is not expected to be completed for at least another decade. At the current rate of expansion, the dictionary is expected to stretch to 40 volumes and may only ever be published electronically.

A team of 75 editors is reworking every definition and etymology, and writing thousands of new entries a year. A further 200 advisers around the world are consulted and in a reading programme similar to that used in Murray's day, hundreds of readers contribute by scouring texts for new words and meanings.

Anyone can submit quotations to the OED. Editors are particularly interested in those demonstrating that a word was being used earlier than thought, or more recently, as well as those illustrating new words and meanings. 'We want to determine when a word entered the language because that tells us about the language and the society,' said Mr Simpson. The verb 'marginalise' took on a new meaning in the early 1970s - 'to render or treat as marginal; to remove from the centre or mainstream; to force (an individual, minority group, etc.) to the periphery of a dominant social group; (gen.) to belittle, depreciate, discount, or dismiss' it states. So far the earliest reference with this sense has been tracked to an article in The Times, published in 1970.

The lexicographer's craft is based on the evidence of words and phrases collected globally. Sarah Ogilvy works on those with more recent international origins, including Chinese. 'Chinese words started coming into English in the 16th century. They tell us so much about what was happening in history at the time,' she said. They first came via Jesuit priests and related to religion and culture, such as the word 'bonze', for a Chinese or Japanese Buddhist priest. Later those more associated with trade, such as 'tea', arrived, followed by those with diplomatic connotations, such as 'kow-tow'. Today words reflect a wider interest in Chinese culture. 'Qigong' is the most recent Chinese addition.

Information available on the internet and use of vast computer databases have revolutionised lexicography. Searching Google offers ample evidence of the latest use of a word. Such tools are used, but lexicographers rely more heavily on the tailor-made British National Corpus, and the equivalent from other English-speaking countries, to more accurately analyse language use.

The British corpus is a database of more than 100 million words collected in the 1990s and regularly updated by a consortium including dictionary houses and libraries. Ninety per cent is made up of written words, from extracts of books and newspapers to advertising leaflets, letters, diary entries and even school essays. The spoken words include transcriptions of natural conversation and publicly spoken English such as news broadcasts, sports commentaries, sermons and parliamentary proceedings.

After studying the usage, the lexicographer writes the definition that best sums up the meaning and the 'gloss' or example phrase of its usage. The complexity of that definition will depend on the level of dictionary.

Lexicographers such as Sally Wehmeier, editor of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, are intrigued by words, read widely and have an ear for the words being spoken around them.

'You have to be fascinated with words to want to work here, and have an analytical approach to language,' she said.

She keeps track of new senses. 'Business people talk now of 'growing a business'. The word 'impact' is now commonly used as a verb. We now talk of switching off a phone and texting a message,' she said. Such senses make their way to new editions.

Dictionaries are not the last word on language, but respond to new uses. 'In no sense can we hold up the development of language. We describe it as we find it,' she said.

Dictionary editors have to be selective - even the OED does not include every word in the English language. To be included, words must be deemed to have caught on, and be used by large numbers of people. Many don't make it to print. 'Sars' appeared just in time to be admitted into the single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English (second edition) published last year. 'Britneyfication' was rejected for lack of evidence of usage.

For more information about the OED and Oxford Dictionaries visit or The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester (OUP), tells the story of the OED.