What Lies Beyond the Words: Neologisms, Categories, and Timelines in the Oxford English Dictionary

New words are created and coined every day, but, surprisingly, it isn’t every day that a word gets its official recognition from the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, upon browsing the newest entries in the database (entries dating 2000 and beyond), the first thing I noticed was the low number of words. Only 115 words have been added to our lexicon since the year 2000, which says a lot about how cautious the OED is about adding new words into it. In fact, according to Oxford Art Blog, “in the past, a word needed to be in use for two or three years before it could be considered.” Now,  it goes back to the extent to which a word is circulated. And technology plays a role. For that reason, it’s no surprise that words related to the internet or words that emerged as a result of it are frequent in the list. Some examples are: “live-blogging,”podcasting, and “retweet.”

With that in mind, of particular interest were the selection of words that were added. Studying the quantity of words would tell you that those who make the decision as to whether or not a words gets added are very stringent about it, but looking at some of the words that have actually been added would give you a bit of a laugh. Before checking this section of the OED, I’d never come across the 2005 word “happy slapping” for instance, the definition of which is so specific and strange, I find it questionable that circulation plays a role in the decision to add a word. Some other favourites were “selfie,” “tenderpreneur,” (this one’s perfect for Lebanon) and “totes.”

Another interesting tool in the OED is the option to view categories of words. A look into words that come from Uralic (European) roots show us that almost half the entries (21/48) come from the 1800s, while the rest come primarily from the 1900s, 1700s, and earlier (13-1400s). Checking the subjects that these words pertain to, one can note that they mostly come from commerce, economy, trade, and military, which suggests that countries that spoke Uralic (northeast Siberia, Finland, Hungary, among others, which are also the roots/sources of the Uralic words) fared quite well with surrounding countries, suggesting a geographic and perhaps political relationship with its neighbouring countries, one that allowed for the spread of these words. “Shako,” for example, is a word commonly and mistakenly attributed to the French because it was so often used by them, as can be seen in the recorded instances of use.

Finally, looking at the “Timelines” option of the OED would lead to a number of conclusions about the effects of a country’s history on its contribution to the OED, the epistemology of certain words, and the development of vocabulary in general. The subject of film, for example, generates the following the following graph:

I can note an obvious rise in film-related terms starting from the early 1900s.. That tells us something about the history of film. The first feature-length film ever made was 1915’s controversial The Birth of A Nation, after which the film industry boomed to become what it is today. So, it would make sense for cinema to expand as a study and as an art to comprise a rich vocabulary during that time period.

Another interesting option in “Timelines” is the ability to check words per region. A quick search of terms originating from India would produce the chart below. There is a steady decrease in the number of terms, and that can be (but is not necessarily) attributed to the British colonisation of India (1850-1947). The colonisers changed a lot about the Indian educational system, for instance, which played a part in standardising British English in India. To this day, Indian schools follow the British Curriculum, which hinders the spread of Indian-originated English words.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a powerful tool that can be used to quantitatively and qualitatively study the evolution and development of the English language. The content of this post is just a glimpse of what it can do and say about our history and the history of global Englishes. I encourage you to browse around it and see what you can find — it’s totes fun!


Webster VS Johnson

In his widely-known essay, “Différance,” french theorist Jacques Derrida explains the notion of Play, that everything is in a constant flux that pertains to time, context, and geographic place (space). Before reading Seth Lerer’s take on dictionaries in his book, Inventing English, I hadn’t thought of the context as much as the content. Suddenly, questions of authorship and historical/social/spacial implications became integral to how I perceived a dictionary and how credible that dictionary was, vis-à-vis the person reading it, of course.
Lerer delves specifically into the Johnson and Webster dictionaries, and in an effort to study the dynamics of lexicography in line with the aforementioned point, I will draw a comparison between three sample definitions taken from both dictionaries to see what each lexicographer said about each word. I will then study the implications of what was included and excluded in the definitions provided.

The first word I looked up was “woman.” The very first thing I noticed about the definitions was how similar they were: both define a woman as the “female of the human race,” the essential difference between the two being Webster’s small but necessary addition of “grown to adult years.” This becomes more interesting in light of Joseph Reed’s essay on the two dictionaries. Reed writes that there is “revision” and “transfer” from Johnson’s dictionary to Webster’s, which Reed likens to plagiarism. Here, we see that Webster only adds to Johnson’s existing definition, further clarifying it. He does not present a more contemporaneous definition of the word.

Both lexicographers provide instances of use for both words. Johnson’s examples are derived from literature (Shakespeare here) as opposed to Webster who relies largely on the Bible and other religious texts, both for this specific definition and for many others.

Another thing to note about the definitions is how they both Other the woman to the man. In both dictionaries, the woman in defined as the female of the human race, but the man (noun) is defined as a “human being,” which says a lot about inherently patriarchal discourses, even at the time. Of course, our understanding of gender today is not binary, but it is interested to trace the origins or older traces of the system of patriarchy.

Finally, on the topic of origins, it’s interesting to study the sources of the word in both dictionaries. As per Reed, Webster accuses Johnson of “inaccurate etymologies,” yet Webster derives the term from “womb” and “man,” which is much less credible than Johnson’s Saxon-originated “wifmann.”

The second word I looked up was “adultery.” Again, the definitions are as follows:

Johnson: The act of violating the bed of a married person.

-Webster: Violation of the marriage bed; a crime, or a civil injury, which introduces, or may introduce, into a family, a spurious offspring.

Webster provides a much more detailed and exemplified definition to the word, while Johnson sticks to his concise and blunt definition. I found it interesting to study this word for what it bears in insight to the growing cultures and policies if the time. Comparing both definitions would help one make a timeline that traces the evolution of cultural perceptions and official understanding of adultery. Webster adds that adultery in most cases involves a child out of wedlock, with which come a lot of questions pertaining to certain child-related legalities. In short, Webster’s is a more complicated and weighted definition. That said, adultery as we understand it today is simply an affair, but rarely one that involves a child, making Johnson’s definition more fitting.

The third and final word brings me back to Derrida’s concept of Play, providing a perfect linguistic example of it. Johnson defines the word “awful” as something purely positive, something “that with strikes with awe.” Webster, on the other hand, while keeping those same definitions, also adds that “common people [today] use it in the sense of frightful, ugly, detestable.”

  Johnson’s definition of “awful”

Both definitions are near completely similar, having the same sources, same cited examples (literature; Shakespeare), with the only difference being Webster’s addition of the negative understanding of the word. That said, it’s interesting to note that the negative meaning of the word was a secondary one to Webster, as he states the positive first. Still, he acknowledges the fact that common people used it in its negative sense, meaning he was aware of the more or less prevailing meaning, but chose to keep the positive one as the primary meaning. Today, “awful” in its positive understanding has fallen into disuse — it is obsolete. 

This assignment helps us realise how language adapts and assimilates with the currents of time. Not only has this made me stop to think twice about a dictionary, it has actually made me consider the lexicographer first, and that the dictionary — which is more or less a trusted source of information — is what the lexicographer makes it, and can be subjective in every sense. 

Following is a video that contains a very brief, very simple introduction to the impact Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had on the literary world:

Semantic Changes

The study of language rests partly on the study of its evolution within (among other things) certain social, historical, and geographic contexts. In the English language, as I’m sure is the case with most languages, words find a way of falling in and out of use, getting an updated, more contemporary definition, or sometimes going so far as changing their meaning entirely. In this short blog post, we’re going to look at some of these aforementioned changes through studying the evolution of the words “defecate,” “tweet”,” and “queer.”

Old use: “When..it iz defecated by al nights standing, the drink iz the better” (R. Laneham Let).
Modern use: “Malaysian diplomat under a ‘love spell’ admits he defecated outside victim’s home” (OneNewsNow).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “defecate” first emerged as an adjective that described that which was purified. It soon became a verb and was given an attachment. The word “Defecate” then referred to purifying the body from pollution. As we see it today, the word means, to quote the OED, “to void the body of faeces.” It’s interesting to see the meaning shift the way it did. While this isn’t an example of a word that was greatly changed, seeing the way in which an attribute was added to the word to give it a more specific meaning (purifying something bad in general to purifying faeces specifically) is noteworthy.

Old use: “The little bird..Tweets to its mate a tiny loving note” (G. Meredith Poems).

Modern use: “Who Tweeted it: Donald Trump or Kanye West? (CNN)

What initially started out as a phonetic noun in the 19th century, the sound of an animal, has now become a popular term coined after the creation of social media platform Twitter. While both meanings are in use today, the former has been replaced with words like “chirping.” And that goes back to the popularity of Twitter. “Tweeting” is almost exclusively attached to the social media outlet now, to the point, in fact, where some people might not even recognise the original meaning. Tweeting associated with birds is therefore falling out of use.
In the Twitterverse, a “Tweet” is both a verb and a noun. The noun refers to the 140 character posts users make or messages they write on each other’s boards, while the verb refers to the act of writing and sending a message/post.

Old use: “His appearance bordered..upon what is vulgarly called the queer” (Scott Woodstock).

Modern use: “Author writing a ‘radical queer’ Bible with gay relationships and gender-flipped prophets” (PinkNews)

The term originated from a 16th century word for ‘perverse.’ It started out as an adjective that referred to veering from the socially approved of norms. It was then used to describe people who were in trouble, often for having lots of debts; ‘Queer Street is full of lodgers just at present’ (Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865).
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was used the way it is understood today; to refer to homosexuals. It was also often used as a derogatory word by heterosexuals, but in the 1980s, as part of a pride movement, homosexuals used the term on each other to spread it in more positive light, and this last version of it is the one that prevails until today. While it is used more to refer to the general spectrum of sexual and gender identities that do not conform to the traditionally accepted orientations, it is used in positive light nonetheless.