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A Chat With John Simpson

John Simpson's picture
Date:Dec 19, 2000
Topic:The World of Words: OED
Duration:One hour

Considered the final authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a 20-volume guide to more than half million words. John Simpson has been with the OED for nearly a quarter century. He has been the Chief Editor of the Dictionary since 1993 and is currently working on its third edition. You can read his biography at the OED site.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the inaugural chat at Wordsmith! Today we have the pleasure of having John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as our guest.

This is a moderated chat. The topic of discussion is `The World of Words: OED'. For the next sixty minutes, we will talk about words, dictionaries, lexicography, and OEDs & ends.

Welcome, John!

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)

Bingley -- Indonesia
I'd like to ask to what extent the changes in the new edition come from changes in the language, and to what extent they reflect changes in lexicographical method or new information about the language in the past.

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Well, that's quite a big question. "Both" is the answer. The OED hasn't been updated in full for a hundred years, so there is a lot of material to take account of. And I hope we are tightening up the editorial policy too where it needs it.

First, what is the future of the hard copy dictionaries?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Either they will carry on in parallel with online reference texts, or they will dwindle away. I rather think they will carry on in parallel for some years to come at least.

Cathy Vickio - USA
Can a word be nominated for inclusion in the dictionary?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Yes, but that doesn't necessarily get it in! On the OED we're looking for documentary evidence of a word's currency over say five years at least. We have readers and contributors throughout the world who provide examples of words and meanings for us, and the editorial staff then work through the online and card files establishing which terms are well enough attested to be considered.

Mike Chary - USA
Does the OED have anything to do with the Oxford American Dictionary?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
The Oxford American Dictionary was I believe a dictionary that was published in the late 1970s. In reality, the answer is "no", though we share a publisher.

Bingley -- Indonesia
Would you accept spoken evidence, such as TV or radio interviews?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
We do cite TV and radio material if we can obtain an official transcript. It's the same with films. And often we can. I think the first example of "magic" in the OED as an exclamation comes from a film script which we obtained through the copyright holders. We "read" scripts and song lyrics too - there's a lot that is actually published. But free speech - not yet....

... We are keen that researchers in the future should be able to reproduce our results (it's rather like a scientific experiment) , and spoken text doesn't allow that. We are developing a policy too to cite general internet sites - but these policies need to be thought out carefully before they are employed.

Adam - USA
If currency is the criterion for a word's inclusion, wouldn't that exclude a lot of the words that people actually refer to the dictionary for?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Currency: I doubt it actually. You'd be surprised (these days) how soon something moves from oral use to print - of some sort.

Ken - R
What do you think about Microsoft publishing a dictionary?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Well, it's interesting that someone as large as Microsoft thinks that you can put a dictionary together the same way you can put together a suite of programs. I don't think you can. (Sorry - someone came along and interrupted me there!)

Carl - United States
The dreaded question of questions: "What is your favorite English word?"

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
It is a dreaded question, and EVERY interview asks it. I make up a new one each time. Or I say 'the end' or something facile like that. If you're a historical lexicographer, you really don't have "favourites" - they are all fascinating objects of study. Shall I make one up now...? No, better not.

Peter - USA
To follow "the dreaded question of questions": Do you have a word origin/history that is particularly interesting that you would share with us (and why)?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Well, I feel happier with that one! There are lots. I particularly like 'magazine' - the way it starts off in the late 16th century (from Arabic) meaning a storehouse, and particularly a storehouse for weapons...

Then branches out into the modern periodical meaning (also a radio and TV programme) - while other meanings develop in firearms and elsewhere. It starts off slowly and then fizzes into unexpected space. But that happens with a lot of words.

Languid - USA
Do you track words that become obsolete? I have seen the [obsolete] reference for words that appear in older texts, but are there words that actually get dropped for lack of modern usage? Is there a list of them anywhere?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
The OED tracks all words - in Britain, America, Australia, etc. - wherever English is spoken, and at whatever level (formal, informal, etc.), and through time. So yes, tracking when a term becomes obsolete is as important to us as finding when a word originates. Some people try to revive old words (by reading the Dictionary). Are they real uses - should we countenance them?

Sierray - USA
I presume that words are dropped from the dictionary as they go out of use as well as added. Do you have any idea what the ratio is of dropped words to added words?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
No, the full OED is a cumulative dictionary. We don't drop words or meanings. We're covering English through the ages, and a meaning that flourished for a quarter of a century back in the 1500s is as important for us (maybe more so) than the latest computer jargon. So there isn't a ratio!

emanuela - italy
What is your personal and professional interest in foreign languages?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Hmm. I try! I read ancient languages more easily than some modern ones. Don't forget that the OED has an editorial staff of about 50 people, so we are able to bring together Italian speakers and others for when we need their expertise. A lot of the language work, though, is necessarily done by consulting the major dictionaries of foreign languages, and corresponding with specialists in their universities. Personally, I wish I spoke more - but it's not essential for the Dictionary!

Upendra - Argentina
Is mixing British and American English linguistically wrong? For people who don't have English as their mother-tongue, the difference is not that perceptible anyway.

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
I'm glad you said that. I spend a lot of time trying to remind journalists that the spelling differences between British and American English are fairly systematic and not major. That's not a "story" though. There's nothing "wrong" with mixing what appears to be two varieties of English. In the longer term, that's one of the ways language develops. "Sidewalk" was originally British, for example, until it went over to America and more or less died out in Britain.

Deborah - Canada
Aside from the sheer volume of the task, what are you finding most challenging about this?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
There are a handful of challenging things - at least. Making sure we have the right source material to hand is one. There's no point in trying to analyse sixteenth-century English unless you have a large representative sample of data (millions of words) to work with. I think there are more things that are fun about the job than challenging.

Some recent talk of English losing its dominance as a principal language. [ I lost my identity. It is clay, USA.

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
I think that question lost something in the translation! Certainly American English is widely used in second-language teaching. You'd expect that - it has a larger native-speaker base than British English. But both will I'm sure remain important varieties of English for a while to come!

Bingley -- Indonesia
What do you think are the best personal qualifications for lexicography?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Hmm. You do need a good command of words - an elegant style, and an ability to write and think concisely. For a big dictionary project you need a lot of mental stamina too. It's surprising, but editors stay with the big projects, and you need to be able to develop with the work. I won't take on anyone who says "I love words" as if it were a qualification in its own right - and it's best not to include spelling mistakes in your resume!

ilana wartenberg-israel
How do you confront the surge of technical jargon, mostly related to the computer world, such that new words are constantly "born"?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
We have a system of monitoring language through our "reading programme" - the one Dr Minor was on in the 19th century (have you read the book?). That uncovers more new vocabulary than we could hope to enter into the dictionary - but much of it is very ephemeral . We "read" technical handbooks, scientific periodicals, popular magazines - on each subject. If we have amassed enough evidence - whether a term is technical or general - it can qualify for the OED.

Michael Power - South Africa
How is computer technology used in maintaining the OED? Has IT brought any insights into lexicography or does it just help with the drudgery?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
We edit online nowadays - and have done for around twelve years. The internet makes much more "text" available to us. But in some ways that's a problem. There's too much data (and not enough knowledge, as they say). In the old days, I might have been working with one hundred carefully selected examples of a word - whereas now at the press of a button you can have 10,000. What we badly need is clever software to do a first sweep of all this data. And that's something linguists and others have been working on for a while.

Bingley -- Indonesia
Any chance of the subscription for the online edition coming down in price a bit so that individual linguaphiles can afford it?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
We directed the online dictionary in the first instance towards subscribing institutions. We're part of Oxford University Press, and the "mission", if you like, is to make educational material as widely available as possible. And the best way to do that was through the traditional institutions such as public and university libraries. As for individual subs -- it would be good, wouldn't it? We'll all have to wait and see.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
The chat ends in ten minutes.

Elaine Meil - USA
During what historical period were the most words added?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
That's two questions: added to the language or added to the Dictionary? The former is the more interesting. Probably the greatest (relative) period of expansion was at the end of the sixteenth century. There's a big increase in the graph there. It keeps on going upwards after that, but not at such a significant pace until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And I think things are shifting quite fast today too.

DavidS - USA
I met a gentleman at a party who said he was "an" OED editor. True? I mean, do you have editors around the world?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Maybe. But then doesn't everyone want to be an OED editor? Can you believe them? In fact, we have staff in the States, and related dictionary projects in Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. So he may have been. Did you believe him?

Kathy Young - USA
What has been your most rewarding experience as Editor of the OED?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
I'd better not say participating in this chat room, had I? I think it was going online in March this year. At LAST the OED could correspond with its users in real time. In the old days, people would provide us with earlier examples, say, of words, and we couldn't add the information to the dictionary because of the treadmill of alphabetical print publication. Now at least the opportunity is there to work alongside collaborators rather than years behind them!

Laura Fargas - US
Do you have any sense that the OED itself has influenced the English language? Every writer I've ever known (meaning fiction writers and poets), me included, regards it as a staff of life. Has the presence of this great resource influenced the use or growth of the language in the past hundred years?

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
I think the OED has given English (throughout the world) a self-confidence. Some people would say it didn't need it. So I think it's more the way it has maybe changed the perception of people about the language and its history than any changes it has caused itself. We do after all try to make sure we "monitor" language.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was the last question for today. Thank you, John Simpson, for inaugurating the chat feature in Wordsmith.org and thanks to everyone for joining in.

John Simpson (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for the opportunity. I enjoyed it!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
We look forward to your feedback on today's chat. Please send your comments to (garg AT wordsmith.org) on how you enjoyed the chat and how we can make it better. Thank you.

clay USA
Before it is too late, my thanks to "Anu Gang" and Mr. Simpson.

And thank you, for an entertaining and informative hour. I look forward to 12.29.2000 and 1.10.2001.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guest is David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. This chat takes place on Dec 29, 2000 at 4 PM GMT (11 AM EST U.S.). You can attend it at wordsmith.org/chat/dc.html.

See you in the next chat!

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