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New York City
September 2002

A Word with Jesse Sheidlower, Lexicographer, Oxford U. Press
By Marie Holmes

Part cultural archive, part authoritative database, nothing, perhaps, fits the definition of “living document” as well as the dictionary. By the time it’s in your hands–the new Shorter Oxford English is about to hit the shelves–some of the linguistic units that it contains will have already acquired new meanings, and the technocrats or the snowboarders or the I-bankers will have coined new terms for the latest fads.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on-line currently contains some 500,000 entries. Jesse Sheidlower, Principal North American Editor, estimates that by the time the OED has been fully updated and revised it would fill some 40 volumes. Whether it will be printed at all, or simply continue to be sold in its on-line form via subscription service, remains to be seen. And they never delete a word.

“We are an historical dictionary,” says Sheidlower. “Our purpose is to reflect language throughout its entire history.” Editorial groups in England, as well as Sheidlower’s North American group, work in alphabetical order to revise and update the OED’s thousands upon thousands of entries. One group is devoted entirely to the task of researching new words. While Sheidlower’s background is in publishing and academia–he studied Early English linguistics at Cambridge–the OED counts among its 60 full-time staff members an M.D., persons with terminal degrees in mathematics and the sciences, as well as “people who’ve competed in obscure sports [and] people who know about knitting.” The editors also consult with hundreds of experts when drafting their definitions.

So who decides which terms make it into the dictionary?

“For well over a century,” explains Sheidlower, the dictionary has relied on a citation program. “Volunteers and staff members will spend a certain amount of time reading a wide variety of books, ranging from mainstream literary sources to news media to highly restricted things in any field, whether it’s cell biology or wooden boat building or criminology or education.”

In the past, these words were noted on slips of paper and filed away for later reference; computer databases hold more recent additions. The paper files alone contain over five million entries. As a rule of thumb, a word must be referenced at least five times in three separate sources before it will be considered for inclusion in the OED. “On the other hand,” Sheidlower adds, “most of the time if there’s something you’ve heard of, it would be very easy to turn up an extremely large number of examples.”

Poor candidates include highly scientific terms used only in specialty sub-fields, nonsense words only articulated once and words that deviate from the common spelling, but not meaning, of a pre-existing word. Some of the latest additions include cramming, Bollywood, gansta, tough love, big hair and D’oh! Be on the lookout for baby mama in the next edition–Sheidlower says it’s now under consideration.

“There’s this belief that the OED is solely concerned with literary things and with formal English,” he admits, asserting, however, that this is not the case. “We spend a lot of effort including technical terms, scientific terms, slang terms– we’re not trying to be just the dictionary of formal written English.”

Sheidlower, a descriptive rather than prescriptive linguist, is committed to the equality of all languages, or, in his case, all words. “There’s nothing about putting something into the dictionary that makes it a ‘real’ word or an ‘official’ word. There’s no such thing as an official word,” he asserts.

“So anything that’s out there is a word, whether it’s highly technical or regarded as ungrammatical or slangy or very new or very old,” he explains. “They’re not ham sandwiches; they’re not tables; they’re words.”

As a historian of the English language, Sheidlower places the much-hyped “explosion” of new technical terms into a broader perspective. “English has always expanded and it will continue to expand,” he says.

“Yes, the language keeps changing, but the way in which it changes is often surprisingly constant.” While the Internet has sped up the rate at which new terms enter into common usage, the influx of new words in itself is hardly anything new.

“If you look at the history of the language and you look at any particular time period, you’ll usually find that the number of technical terms coming into the language has been stable for a very long time,” explains Sheidlower, citing studies that have found that proportion of technical terms was almost identical in the 1750’s as in the 1950’s.

The lexicographer takes the oft-lamented loss of linguistic aptitude, characterized by dismal standardized test scores and the booming test prep business, with an equally generous pinch of salt.

“We should read more, certainly,” he says. “I would very much like people to use more words.” Yet he sees no crisis in the average American vocabulary.

“You can express extremely complex and difficult thoughts with a very small number of words and you can use big, complicated words for no purpose other than showing off. So the number of words in itself that you use is [not what’s important].”

A former Classics major, Sheidlower even questions the belief that learning Latin gives students any verbal advantage.

“There’s something in English known as the etymological fallacy, which is the belief that a word’s history has some deep bearing on how it’s used today,” he says.

“Words mean what they do because of how they are currently used, not how they were used 500 years ago, and not how they were used in Latin 2000 years ago.”

One doesn’t need to know, for instance, that Homer Simpson’s D’oh! precedes him by at least 50 years, or that in the original script the sound was referred to as “annoyed grunt” and it was in fact the actor who came up with the expression. But if you were curious, today or a hundred years from now when the word has fallen out of vogue, then the OED would be the place to look.#


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