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!

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