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.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

16 Buggy Ways to Say Mosquito

LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images
LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images

It’s summertime, and you know what that means: attack of the mosquitoes. You might be one of a lucky type who rarely attract bites, or you might be someone skeeters love to feast on. If you’re the latter, you’ll want plenty of ammunition for name-calling (and plenty of chickens, apparently). Luckily, we’ve teamed up with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you some ways people across the U.S. refer to the bloodsuckers, and a couple of bonus terms from outside the States too.

1. Maringouin

Referring especially to a large mosquito, this Louisiana term is French in origin and ultimately comes from marigoui, which is Tupi-Guarani, a South American Indian language family. According to American Speech, maringouin is Creole dialect “used as early as 1632” and recurring “regularly from that time on in the letters and narratives of explorers and missionaries.” Good to have on hand would be the mangeur maringouin, a bird also known as the chuck-will’s-widow, and Louisiana French for “mosquito eater.”

2. Swamp Angel

A swamp angel is anything but, at least where skeeters are concerned. Used especially in the South and South Midland regions, the term swamp angel is often used by "old-timers," according to a 2002 quote captured in DARE from the St. Petersburg Times.

3., 4., AND 5. Gallinipper, Katynipper, and Nipper

Also known as a gabber napper, a galliwopper, and a granny-nipper, gallinipper is used in the South, South Midland, and especially the South Atlantic.

While a quote from the 1906 book The Parson’s Boys asserts that gallinippers are so-called “because at each ‘nip’ they took a gallon,” according to DARE, the origin of the term is unknown, having been “much altered” by folk-etymology and “other processes.” A connection might be gally, which means to frighten or confuse.

The earliest citation of gallinipper in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1801. However, DARE antedates that by over 200 years with this choice quote from New England’s Prospect by William Wood: “The third is Gurnipper ... her biting causeth an itching upon the hands or face, which provoketh scratching.”

In Tennessee, katynipper is used, while according to the OED, nipper refers to a large mosquito in Newfoundland.

6. Snow Mosquito

A snow mosquito is a “large, early-season mosquito,” according DARE, that comes "out under the snow” and “only for two or three weeks in the spring.” The term, and the insect itself, might be found in California, Alaska, and Wyoming. A 1962 book called Quoth the Raven describes the bugs as “clumsy, heavy fliers” with a “droning hum, like that of an airplane,” which “gives ample warning of their presence and makes an offensive against them easy.”

7. Nighthawk

Nighthawk might be your next hair metal band name, but it's also an epithet for the mosquito, as quoted in North Carolina. Other definitions in DARE include a kind of bird, a kind of worm, a nickname in the West for “a ranch hand in charge of horses or cattle at night,” and a euphemism for a chamber pot in Georgia.

Another name of the nighthawk bird is mosquito hawk. According to the Linguistic Atlas of the United States by Lee Pederson, the “skeeter hawk is a cuckoo [sic] bird that catches mosquitoes.” It’s also a dragonfly, at least in the South and scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley, so called “from their continually hunting after Muskeetoes, and killing and eating them,” according to The Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737.

8. Brasshead

Brasshead is a mosquito moniker you might hear in northwest Florida. Where it comes from isn’t clear—perhaps the insect’s yellow coloring, the hardness of its stinging proboscis, or its audacity for biting.

9. Drill Bug

You can also call the piercing pests drill bugs, as one might do in Illinois.

10. Mitsy

This deceptively cute shortening of mosquito might be heard in Ohio.

11. Mossie

Another abbreviation, mossie is primarily Australian slang, according to the OED. Its earliest citation is from 1916: “You won't be eaten by mosquitoes outside if you get on the breezy side. The ‘mossies’ haven't gone out of the house yet.”

12. Cousin

If you’re in Virginia and hear someone complaining about cousins, they might have annoying relatives—or they might be annoyed by mosquitoes. Why cousins? “Because they are so many and they stick so close,” according to a quote in DARE.

13. Paul Bunyon Mosquito

You guessed it: an extra-big one. Named for the mythical giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan mosquito is a term that might be used in Michigan.

14. Texas Mosquito

A way of describing a biter as big as Texas. A 1900 issue of the Ft. Wayne Sentinel of Indiana claims that while “much has been written about the Jersey mosquito,” the “proper kind of a press agent” might make the Texas mosquito “head and heels over his brethren in New Jersey.”

15. Snipe

This term might come from the mosquito’s resemblance to the snipe bird and its long bill. According to a 1872 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the story that some “Philadelphia sportsmen” shot at “New Jersey mosquitos,” thinking that they were snipe, is “an invention.” The City of Brotherly Love residents apparently “knew what the insects were, but despaired of killing them in any other way.”

16. Jersey Mosquito

So what’s the deal with Jersey mosquitoes, and why is this appellation for a hefty skeeter named for the state?

It doesn’t have to do with the size of the state but where it comes from: the salt marshes of New Jersey. They are “notorious,” say Lester A. Swann and Charles S. Papp in their 1972 book, Common Insects of North America, as well as “fierce biters and strong fliers” who “attack in full sunlight.” Variations on this chiefly Northeast saying include Jersey bird, Jersey bomber, Jersey eagle, and Jersey robin. The phrase may sometimes be pronounced Joisey mosquito.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER