13 Facts About the Oxford English Dictionary

iStock.com/GCShutter
iStock.com/GCShutter

This year marks the 135th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (though the eminent reference book is hardly looking its age). As the English language continues to evolve, the dictionary has flourished and regularly added new words such as nothingburger, prepper, idiocracy, and fam. Get to know it better.

1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was built on volunteer labor.

When the London Philological Society came up with the idea for a new dictionary of the English language in 1857, the editors decided it was necessary to enlist the help of the public and asked avid readers to send examples of sentences that could illuminate the meanings of different words. Every day, volunteers mailed thousands of “quotation slips” from books, newspapers, and magazines. By the time the first edition was published, more than 2000 volunteers had assisted the editors in its completion.

2. It took more than 70 years to complete the first edition of the OED.

Originally, the Philological Society predicted that the dictionary would take about 10 years to complete. Twenty-seven years later, the editors had successfully reached the word ant. Knowing it would be a while until a completed book was ready, they began publishing unbound editions of the work-in-progress in 1884. The first full volume was eventually published in 1928, more than 70 years after the society first came up with the idea.

3. The OED started out messy. Very messy.

Frederick Furnivall, one of the dictionary’s founders, was a visionary—but that vision did not extend to his organizational skills. Under his stewardship as editor, the dictionary was a mess. Quotation slips were stuffed haphazardly into bags and went missing. All of the words starting with “Pa” went AWOL for 12 years and were eventually discovered in Ireland. Slips for the letter “G” were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. All of the entries for the letter “H” somehow turned up in Italy.

4. OED co-founder Frederick Furnivall was a controversial figure.

After founding a controversy-riddled Shakespeare Society, Furnivall fell into a six-year feud with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne (whose mastery of the English language earned him six nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature) mocked Furnivall’s club by calling it “Fartiwell and Co.” and “The Sh*tspeare Society.” Furnivall reached into his bag o' insults and said that Swinburne had, “the ear of a poetaster, hairy, thick and dull.”

5. Dr. James Murray helped the OED clean up its act.

Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took the helm as the dictionary’s principal editor in 1879 and remained in that position for the rest of his life (he died in 1915). Murray was a linguistic superstar; he was proficient in Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish, and Danish and also had a solid grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician.

6. Murray built a shed for the OED's editors to work in.

In 1885, to better organize the dictionary, Murray constructed a sunken shed made of corrugated iron to house the editors and their precious quotation slips. Called the “Scriptorium,” this linguistic workshop contained 1029 pigeonholes that allowed Murray and his subeditors to arrange, sort, and file more than 1000 quotation slips each day. 

6. Only one word is known to have gone missing.

Only one quotation slip—containing the word bondmaid—is known to have been lost. (It fell down behind some books and the editors never noticed.) Murray was deeply embarrassed by his failure to include the word in the dictionary. “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission,” he said. “The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable.” The word was officially introduced in a 1933 supplement.

7. One of the OED’s most prolific contributors was a murderer confined to an insane asylum.

One volunteer who provided the OED with countless quotation slips was William C. Minor, a schizophrenic who was incarcerated at the Broadmoor Insane Asylum in Berkshire, England, after he fatally shot a man he (erroneously) believed had broken into his room. According to Murray, Minor was the dictionary’s second most prolific contributor, even outdoing members of the full-time staff.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to the OED, too.

In 1919 and 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien worked for the dictionary, where he studied the etymology of Germanic words beginning with the letter W, composing drafts for words like waggle and wampum. "I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life,” Tolkien later said. (Years later, Tolkien spoofed his editors in a comic fable called Farmer Giles of Ham.)

9. The longest entry in the OED is for a three-letter word.

The most complicated word in the Oxford English Dictionary? Set. In the dictionary’s 1989 edition, the three-letter word contains 430 senses (that is, shades of meaning) and requires a 60,000-word definition. Other short words with endless definitions? Run (396 senses), go (368 senses), and take (343 senses).

10. The most popular edition of the OED was impossible to read with the naked eye.

Originally, the OED had a limited audience. Not only was a set of books expensive, it was also bulky and took up an entire bookshelf. In 1971, the Oxford University Press decided to publish a smaller, complete version that compressed nine pages into one. The text was so tiny that the two-volume book came with a magnifying glass. It quickly became one of the bestselling dictionaries on the market.

11. Digitizing the OED took a lot of work.

In the late 1980s, it took more than 120 typists, 55 proofreaders, and a total of 67 million keystrokes to digitize the entire contents of the Oxford English Dictionary. The process took 18 months.

12. Shakespeare isn’t the OED's most quoted source.

The OED's most quoted source is, in fact, the British daily newspaper The Times, which has 42,840 quotations (nearly 10,000 more than William Shakespeare). Coming in third and fourth are the Scottish novelist Walter Scott and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, respectively. When it comes to coining and introducing new words, Shakespeare isn’t first in that arena either; that honor belongs to Geoffrey Chaucer.

13. The last word in the OED is totally buggy.

Each year, about 2000 to 5000 new words, senses, and subentries are added to the Oxford English Dictionary. For years, the last word in the book was zynthum, a type of malty beer made in ancient Egypt. But in 2017, zynthum was usurped by zyzzyva, a type of South African weevil.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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