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Jesse Sheidlower's picture

A Chat With Jesse Sheidlower

Date:May 26, 2003, 5 PM Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:75 Years of the Oxford English Dictionary
Duration:One hour

June 2003 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary. A true lex icon, it is considered the definitive record of the English language.

On this occasion, we'll be chatting with Jesse Sheidlower, the Principal North American Editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, at the Oxford University Press. Join us for a lively chat about the world of words, languages, and lexicography.

Transcript

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the thirteenth online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Our guest in today's chat is Jesse Sheidlower, North American Editor, Oxford English Dictionary. He is joining us from New York City.

Welcome, Jesse!

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Great to be here, Anu!

Bingley - Indonesia
Good morning/evening Mr. Sheidlower.

AnnaStrophic
My question is two-part:
1. Does the OED have other "colonial" editors besides you?
2. Are there quotas, or percentages, for entries from countries outside the UK, or is the dictionary open-ended, as it were?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
The North American Editorial Unit is the only office outside of Oxford. There are a few reasons; one is that American English is more productive than other varieties; and another is that other Englishes have more resources than American English available. There are already comprehensive historical dictionaries of Scots, Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English, for example.

There are no quotas of any sort; whatever has currency gets in. By the way, there are editors in Oxford who are natives of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand; there aren't any Americans in the Oxford groups.

etaoin
Is productive a "good" thing?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It's neither inherently good nor inherently bad. The purpose of the OED is to describe the English language; if American English is generating a lot of it, then the OED will cover American English thoroughly.

Bingley -- Indonesia
Why is that? Why not make a dictionary on the same principles but focusing on English as used in N. America?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
One could, and in fact there have been/are some projects of the sort. There was a Dictionary of American English (1938-44), led by one of the main OED editors, and a Dictionary of Americanisms (1951).

There is also the Dictionary of American Regional English, currently in progress (four volumes have appeared), devoted to American dialects. But there's nothing as comprehensive as what we would like to have.

Ernie
Does the OED deal heavily with idioms? My good German friend, a student of British English, could not grasp many of ours, given their origin in baseball.

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It does, and this is something that will be improving as we revise the dictionary. There's been a lot of work done on idioms, partly as a result of increasing interest in ESL, and that research is having an effect on what we include and how we treat it.

James Host
Due to the ever increasing amount of cultural slang, what abilities would one have to author a thorough volume on sub-cultural vernacular? Is that an interest or does that said vernacular change so frequently that it would be ineffective to try and document it?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
While it's certainly true that slang changes, it's something of a myth that it changes too rapidly to record. Most slang, once it gets a foothold in the language, tends to stay around, and most slang that you've heard of in the mainstream has probably been around longer than you expect. We are indeed interested in recording slang, and it's a strong personal interest of mine; I expect our coverage of it to continue to improve.

etaoin
How does one research an idiom?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
The same way you would research anything else. If it's from a particular field, you would look at sources in that field, or talk to consultants in that field; you would in any case do various database searches to try to get more, and earlier, examples of it; and so forth.

AnnaStrophic
When is the third edition due out?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It is currently being published online at http://www.oed.com . We began publishing in 2000, and have been coming out with a batch of about 1,500 revised entries in alphabetical sequence, plus 250 new words from anywhere in the alphabet, every quarter. We hope to be done in about 20 years or so. This is a subscription service, but there are publicly available parts of it at the site.

Ernie
I remember someone saying of the digital version of the OED that would could write an application to generate a dictionary, say of the Bard's time, or any other time. Is such an application now available, perhaps through OED?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Not directly; you could look at particular words to see if they were in use at a given time, but you can't do a search for everything in use at a given time. We hope to add functionality of this sort in the future. I don't know of any other source for it, but there is a dictionary out there that organizes itself by the dates words first appeared (based on OED). It's not too useful, I'm afraid.

Bingley -- Indonesia
The subscription is very expensive for individuals. Any chance of it coming down a bit?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
We hope it will be able to be discounted further. At the same time, the OED is intended primarily for an academic audience, and we make big efforts to ensure that it is available to members of universities, through public libraries, etc., so if you are affiliated with such an institution you will be able to get it there.

Alan
Is there any plan to broaden OED's coverage of pronunciations, or will that still be left to special (e.g., dialect) dictionaries, with only "standard" pronunciations getting in?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
For the Third Edition, each word will have a "standard" British and U.S. pronunciation, with further regional pronunciations if the word is explicitly regional. In certain cases there will be more detailed pronunciation info, but comprehensive information will unfortunately still be the province of more specialized works.

AnnaStrophic
How has your research changed since the days of the first OED (so dramatically described by Winchester)? How much do you rely on the Internet now?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
To be honest, it hasn't changed very much at all! Yes, we now use computers extremely extensively, but the overall process--gather as much information as possible, look through it, think hard, write definitions--is pretty similar. We're using tons of full-text databases, both open and proprietary, and do a lot of research on the Internet, for sure. But this tends just to make the work better; it doesn't speed it up all that much. Sometimes the opposite.

Ambitious_Wench
Doe OED ever monitor Usenet newsgroups for language shifts and word use?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Not generally, but we will in certain cases. We do use Google Groups for research at times, but we don't actively monitor Usenet for particular features.

James Host
Have there been any efforts to create a more detailed reference piece on the origins of words in the English language? Beyond that of the cryptic footnotes in the definitions presented in most dictionaries, but more encyclopaedic, focusing on the development tree of words?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
There have been a lot of efforts along these lines. A major problem is that the audience for a truly scholarly etymological dictionary is very small and very specialized; there are tons of general-interest popular etymology books. The OED itself is certainly the best general reference for word histories. There's a major project being led by Anatoly Liberman of the University of Minnesota now on English etymology, but it's years away from completion.

Faldage
I have always used my old original (brick and mortar) OED for word histories, but not for etymologies. Is the on-line edition stronger on etymology?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
OED Online represents the most up-to-date version of the dictionary. If you're interested in a word from a range we've already revised, you'll find a lot more detail in OED Online. But we haven't gotten that far yet.

TheFallibleFiend
Are there established rules for determining what nonwords are included? For example, abbreviations that aren't acronyms. Do the rules ever change? I'm thinking of things like abbreviations on the net (LOL, RTFM, etc.).

Bingley -- Indonesia
What about the abbreviations used in SMS-ing/texting? Do you intend to include things like 'u' for 'you' and 'l8' for late?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It depends mostly on currency. If a term becomes widespread enough that it would be seen beyond some highly restricted group, we'd be likely to include it. The same goes for texting. We've certainly added a number of the more common Net initialisms; I don't think we've added any texting abbreviation of the "l8r" sort yet, but we're tracking them closely.

And by the way, we don't regard these things as "nonwords" just because they're pronounced as initialisms.

ej
Do you still use volunteer sifters and collectors? How should one get to be one? I read extensively, particularly in the fields of public health, genomics, and brain research where new words are being generated to match the explosion of discovery and concept development .

Bingley -- Indonesia
Do you still have outside readers sending in citations or is it all done in-house these days?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
No, we still have a number of volunteer readers working out of house. There is information in the public areas of the OED site about it, if you're just sending in the occasional example, and if you're interested in being a more regular contributor, you can get in touch with me directly and we can discuss it. One warning is that it's very difficult to be a really good reader. This is not to discourage anyone; we really value all the help we can get. But it takes more time and concentration than people usually assume.

etaoin
What's been your biggest word surprise for this edition?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
That's a tough one! I'm not sure; we've had antedatings that have been quite dramatic. But offhand I don't know if there's a single thing that's stood out particularly.

Bingley -- Indonesia
How did you come to be a lexicographer?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Mostly through luck. I had always been interested in dictionaries, but never thought I could get a job in the field, which is, after all, rather small. When I was in graduate school I found a minor antedating of the OED, and became a volunteer reader; after I left I was working for Random House in a marketing position. A friend of mine who was an editor in the Reference Department there left, and I got his job, helped by the fact that I had been doing OED work for a while. And that was that.

Alan
What qualifies a quotation to be used in the OED? Does it have to appear in a published printed source, or can it be, for instance, from a Web page (realizing the ephemeral nature of resources on the Web)?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It's something that's undergoing flux at the moment. We will take citations from the Web under certain circumstances: from sites that seem to be extremely reliable about dating (the Request For Comments pages, for example); from Usenet groups if they are the earliest example of a particular term; from a random Web page generally only if they are exceptionally important, providing (say) a modern example for a word that's otherwise obsolete and we've exhausted all other lines of research. We do hope that standards do develop for the archiving etc. of the Web, which will allow us to cite more regularly from it.

AnnaStrophic
You said the OED3 will still be another 20 years or so in the making. Does Oxford also plan to publish the Shorters, Compacts, et al?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Of course, historical sources that happen to be on the Web are fair game.

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Yes, we just came out with a new edition of the Shorter last fall. The Compact (full text, but photo-reduced) won't appear in a new version until the whole thing is completed. To be honest, we don't know if we'll be producing the OED in print form; we just don't know if there will be any market for a 40-volume (project) dictionary on paper in 20 years.

Leslie-U. S.
Are there any Boontling words in the new OED, or is that too esoteric?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It's too esoteric. I don't even think DARE includes any Boontling words (Boontling was a sort of private language developed in Boonville, California).

AWench
I find it sad that the more ephemeral uses for words are not documented with the care that our longer-lived words receive from the OED. Would you care to comment?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Well, we do what we can -- there are a lot of words out there, and we only have so much time, money, and staff. There are dictionaries devoted to narrow fields, or things like the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which I was the Project Editor of at Random House) or DARE, that provide full historical treatment to certain areas. The OED does a lot, but it can't do everything. We do encourage the development of specialty dictionaries, though, and often work with lexicographers on the planning of such projects.

James Host
Do you ever find that there exist contradictory definitions for the same word? Perhaps such as "bad" where bad's obvious meaning takes on an opposite meaning in some usages?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Yes, there is a large genre of such words, often called "Janus words" (after the two-headed Roman god) or "auto-antonyms". Some are cases where a meaning is deliberately switched, like "bad" (or "mean", or "wicked", or...), and some arise for other reasons, like "cleave" meaning either 'to split' or 'to join', which represents the phonological falling together of two different words, or "overlook", which can mean both 'to fail to notice' or 'to supervise; oversee'.

James Host
Given the vast amount of words in the English language, one would find it impossible to learn or maintain a vocabulary including them all. Speaking in terms of necessary cultural literacy, do you feel that the amount of words necessary to build a fair vocabulary is growing as time moves forward in this day and age, or maintaining a balance as some new words are used in place of their predecessors?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
It depends on your definition of "fair". I think that for a general understanding of English, the size of the vocabulary is going to be relatively constant over time. It's hard to study things like this. Shakespeare only used about 20,000 different words in his entire corpus, and some studies estimate that the "average" person today knows, say, 60,000 words; but on the other hand studies also indicate that the number of words _regularly_ used by people on a daily basis can be as low as 1,500 or so.

Re
Could you clarify the difference between word history and etymology.

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
They're really the same thing. But for general discussions, "etymology" is more likely to refer to tracking how words are borrowed from other languages, and their sound changes, and so forth, while "word history" would be used more broadly of semantic developments and the reasons for particular senses. It's not a technical distinction, though.

etaoin
I'm interested in your use of the word "currency". When did that come to be used the way you're using it?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
The OED's first example in the sense 'the fact or quality of being current, prevalent, or generally reported and accepted...' is 1722. I'm sure we could now find earlier examples of this sense.

Re
Someone I know referred to tinhorns the big tin things that go in roads as a whistler. I don't find it in the dictionary but I don't have an OED. How long as this word been in use describing tin horns?

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
I'm sorry, I don't understand the sense you're referring to.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Jesse, for being here today and thanks to all the participants.

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Thank you for having me.

AWench
Thank you!

AnnaStrophic
Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity!

etaoin
Thanks!!

James Host
Thank you for your time, Jesse

ccbarnes
Thank you

Victoria 2
Thanks.

lexaholic
Thanks, Jesse!

Faldage
Thank you very much.

Leslie
Thank you-and I hope someday you will have a chance to finish the Historical Dictionary of American Slang!

Jesse Sheidlower (Guest Speaker)
Heh. Me too!

R
Thanks very much.

ej
Thanks so much for your generosity, Jesse.


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