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Word Nerd: English is flooded with words from away

Alas, because language is in a constant state of flux, a lexicographer’s work is never done.

The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), replete with 414,825 words, was completed in 1928 and ceremonial presentations were made to President Calvin Coolidge and His Majesty King George V. Supplements ensued until 1989, when a second edition comprised of twenty volumes appeared. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, this edition held “21,728 pages and contains some 290,500 main entries, within which there are a further 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type (all defined) and a further 169,000 phrases and undefined combinations in bold italic type, totalling 615,500 word forms.”

The pace of change is ever-quickening. In March 2000, the 20-volume OED plus three volumes of additions became available online, and since then, every word is being revised. So, 120 years after the first editor of the OED, James Murray, launched an “appeal for Words for the OED”, John Simpson, then chief editor, invited “readers to contribute to the development of the Dictionary by adding to our record of English throughout the world. Everyone can play a part in recording the history of the language and in helping to enhance the OED.”

I believe this project represents one of the greatest feats of scholarship ever undertaken and accomplishes for lexicography what the Human Genome Project is doing for biology.

Words, and new senses of existing words, are flooding into the language from all corners of the world. Only a dictionary the size of the OED can adequately capture the true richness of the English language throughout its history and its development across the globe. By the time the revisions are completed, sometime between 2025 and 2030, the English vocabulary will most likely have at least doubled. There may not even be a print edition, as it would require close to fifty volumes to complete it. One reason so many words are being added is the lexicographic advancements in the non-British and non-American English languages, such as African and Asian varieties, whose words are increasingly being recorded in the OED. There is no longer only one English language but a variety of flavours.

Interestingly, the revision in 2000 began not with the letter “A” but with the letter “M.” I asked John Simpson why this was done. He replied, “The OED editors wanted to start the revision at a point halfway through the dictionary where the style was largely consistent, and to return to the earlier, less consistent areas later.” In any case, by 2010 all words from M to R had been revised and this alphabetical format was abandoned. Entries across the alphabet are revised every three months. For example, in December 2014 un-PC was added; June 2014 introduced branzino as a name for the European bass or sea bass, and also the verb Skype; in March 2014, bestie achieved OED validation.

Aside from cataloguing virtually every English word of the last 1000 years, the OED, in its online incarnation, offers a host of useful features for the lexicographically-minded.

In graphic form, timelines highlight the year when words first entered the OED. Hence, the year I was born also featured the arrival of the words cappuccino, cybernetics, and transistor, whereas 1616, the year Shakespeare expired, saw the birth of acquiescent, incidental and Kurd.

If you guessed Shakespeare as the most frequent quoted OED source, you’re not far wrong. The Bard, however, comes in second and is bested by the London Times (39,884 quotations versus 33,127). Rounding out the top five are #3, Walter Scott; #4, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London; and #5, Encyclopaedia Britannica. The top North American source is the New York Times at #11 and the Globe and Mail takes Canadian honours at #212. I don’t think too many people would guess the Canadian runner-up —The Daily Colonist of Victoria, B.C. at #431.

Richler’s next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in spring 2016 by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver, B.C.

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