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  • FORUMUsing OED Evidence
  • Julie Coleman (bio)


The papers in this special issue are united by three main themes. The first is their fascination with the wealth of evidence available within the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This evidence tells us about the history of words and about the creativity and influence of authors and works, but also about wider cultural history and the history of the OED itself. Second, these papers explore the complexities involved in using and interpreting that evidence. Finally, they ask whether the evidence provided is misleading to unwary users of the OED. Can we expect a work of scholarship to draw attention to its own limitations?

The history of the OED

The OED is a monumental account of the history of the lexis of English, rightly celebrated as the work that “has stolen the high ground of lexicography” (Holder 2004, 226). The first edition (originally called The New English Dictionary, but here referred to as OED1) appeared painstakingly slowly in fascicles between 1884 and 1928, using evidence provided by volunteer readers and supplemented by dictionary staff. The first supplement (OEDS1), published in 1933, added new words and senses for which evidence had come to light during the process of compiling the first edition. Brewer (2007) has demonstrated that work on the dictionary did not cease at this point, even though the next instalment in OED history did not appear until the second supplement [End Page 1] (OEDS2), between 1972 and 1986. According to its publicity, Burchfield’s supplement righted the narrowly British focus of earlier editors (but see Ogilvie 2008a; 2012; Shea, this issue).

Until 1989, an OED-user wishing to undertake a thorough review of the dictionary’s coverage of a specific word had to consult three separate alphabetical listings. This was rectified by the publication of OED2, which brought OED1 and the two supplements together in a single alphabetical listing. An electronic edition of OED2 appeared on CD-ROM in 1992 (see Jucker 1994), followed by OED Online in 2000 (see Brewer 2004). OED Online combines partially re-edited material from OED1 and OED2, new senses listed in the Additions Series (OEDAS) during the 1990s, and entirely new material that has never been published in hard copy. Newly edited entries are now labelled as “OED Third Edition”, but it is unlikely that the third edition will ever achieve the fixity of form that is characteristic of the earlier hard copy editions.

Using OED evidence

The history of the OED will already be familiar to readers of this journal and the subject has, entirely appropriately, received a great deal of scholarly attention, ranging from partisan (Murray 1977) to polemical (Willinsky 1994) and from archival (Mugglestone 2005) to sensational (Winchester 2003). This special issue is not about the history of the OED per se, but rather about the use of its contents as evidence. At its simplest level, the evidential use of OED is represented by the quotation of its etymology, definition or earliest citation date in support of an argument. For example, in this newspaper account of a disagreement between India and Sri Lanka, part of an OED definition (though not the most relevant one) is quoted to challenge a political position:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an Agreement as, “a MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING”. It is common knowledge and a well known principle in Law that any agreement entered into between two parties, whether it be between sovereign nations or between two individuals should have the consent of both parties.

(“Agreement signed under duress” 2013).

Here the OED adds authority to the argument: if the OED says that agreements must be mutual, then the contested position cannot be characterized as an agreement. In this case, the writer is citing an entry that has been revised for OED3, but older entries are also used in similar ways. For example, in a transcript from television news, Lou Dobbs (2013) [End Page 2] cites the OED definition for coup with reference to recent events in Egypt, arguing that anything described as a coup is, by definition, illegal. In this case, the definition has not been updated since 1893 and therefore does not reflect the current use of this...


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