Just like the universe, the OED keeps expanding

April 17, 2000|By Thomas J. Brady | Thomas J. Brady,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

When John Simpson needed to come up with a definition of "skanking," a dub (or performance) artist named Benjamin Zephaniah went to his office and skanked while Simpson wrote.

The result: a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist, and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat; dancing in this style.

Simpson, chief editor of the renowned "Oxford English Dictionary," the standard for English lexicography, told that story during a recent interview. He also talked about the venerable OED's move online, as well as the revision it is undergoing.

The $55 million revision is pro- jected to be completed by 2010 and will essentially double the size of the current 20-volume complete version of the dictionary, although whether it will ever again be printed in its entirety in book form is still up in the air -- or, cyberspace, if you will.

The OED has "45 regular editors on the staff, and there are also a number of other research assistants," Simpson said, adding that there are many others who send in quotations and suggestions.

Cost of access to the online edition will vary according to user. "What we're putting online is the whole second edition of the dictionary plus the beginning of the updated entries. The cycle of revision will be completed by 2010. The first range of updated and new entries is in the "M to MA range," Simpson said. More than 4,000 new and revised entries are being prepared this year, and the annual output is to increase as 2010 approaches. The first section of the dictionary was published in 1884 and the first full edition in 1928; the second edition came out in 1989.

The OED editors are adding not just new words, but "new sentences and new meanings for old words as well. We deal on the OED with about probably 2,000 each year. Depending on how obscure and ephemeral they are, you could probably make a list of over 10,000 if you wanted to, but some would be so extreme and borderline that they would be hardly worth it."

As to whether any words are ever taken out to make room for all the new ones, Simpson says: "We don't throw words out of the dictionary. It's cumulative because even if a word was only significant for a few years in the 16th century, it's still part of the picture of English. It just gets bigger."

As for how the OED handles dirty words, Simpson laughs: "With our gloves on."

Simpson says that "one of the challenges online is to introduce the idea of browsing on the screen because in the book people just flit from page to page and pick up threads and follow them through the dictionary. Having the same ability on the screen is a bit more tricky to program in." He says that readers can browse on-screen by following hyperlinks.

New words don't come just from technology, Simpson says. "There are some slang terms, a lot of new words from other parts of the world other than Britain and America. So there's slang, there's technology, there are new political terms. It comes from the whole gamut, really."

The main trend that he discerns in the English language "is that we're becoming more informal in what we say. We probably can't really tell what's happening today for another 50 years or so, but that's what we think is happening." He adds that "I think we're also as English speakers much readier to take on words from other cultures than we were before."

One of Simpson's favorite new words over the last few years is "gobsmacked," which the dictionary calls U.K. slang. It means "flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement."

While online, Simpson looked up the Philadelphia Inquirer and found 58 quotations, including the earliest, from 1874, under the word "warrantee," with a quotation from a Wanamaker's ad on Sept. 26.

Simpson says that he still reads every single word that goes into the dictionary. "At the moment I do. When we start producing more, larger installments online each quarter, then I don't think there'll be time for me to read everything." He says he and his co- editor of the second edition of the dictionary "read half each" of the 20 volumes.

Simpson, 46, was born in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England, and received a B.A. in English literature from the University of York and an M.A. in medieval studies from the University of Reading. He joined the dictionary, which is based in Oxford -- not London, as many people assume -- in 1976.

During his leisure time, he enjoys reading, observing that he's now "reading some book on restrictions on printers in Elizabethan England. But you're on the hunt for interesting words when you're reading it as well. You underline them all the time."

Asked for one of the more unusual uses of the dictionary that he's ever heard of, Simpson says, chuckling: "I think W.H. Auden used to sit on it when he was writing poetry. It helped his mental processes."

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