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The OED is 80: Some fascinating facts

By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

As Rebecca said yesterday, OUP UK is alive with the sound of the 80th anniversary celebrations for the Oxford English Dictionary. We’ve been having all manner of tours and workshops over the last couple of days with journalists and bloggers from both sides of the Atlantic coming along for the ride. I have been going along to some of the sessions and have quickly realised that even after working for Oxford University Press for more than three years there is still loads that I just didn’t know.

So, for my first post, I thought I’d share with you all some fascinating facts and figures about the Oxford English Dictionary. Did you know…

  • -There are currently over 600,000 words in the OED
  • -The OED costs over £4 million (or nearly $7 million) to run every year in editorial costs alone
  • -… and it has never, ever made OUP any money!
  • -As well as the addition of new words and senses to the Dictionary, the editors are also hard at work re-writing the historical information that is core to each OED entry for the first time
  • -Work initially began on the OED in 1857, though the first edition didn’t appear in print until 1884, with ten volumes appearing between 1884 and 1928
  • -The second edition appeared in print in 1989, and work is currently in progress on the third edition
  • -The OED first went online in 2000
  • -When starting to revise the OED for the third edition, the editorial team started at the letter M. They are currently on P,Q, and R.
  • -They are also working on “big” words, which have long entries, such as ‘sex’, ‘cool’, ‘big’, and ‘bad’.
  • -Members of the public are welcome to write in if they have evidence of a word being used in print earlier than is currently recorded in the OED. This will be minutely checked and verified by the team of editors, and if found to be authentic, then the entry will be updated.
  • -This recently happened with the word ‘microcomputer’. The OED team had traced it back to the mid-1960s, but just two weeks ago someone wrote in with evidence that it was used in an Isaac Asimov novel in the 50s. This is being verified now and if found to be correct, an updated entry will go online in December.

Fascinating, isn’t it? My favourite anecdote of the day came from Bernadette Paton, one of the OED’s Associate Editors. When revising the entry for the word ‘parachute’, she came across the following wonderful quotation from the Gloucester Journal in 1784:

“After having thrown a sheep six times from the top of a tower,..by the aid of a machine called a parachute, without the animal receiving any damage, he [Montgolfier, who invented the parachute] prevailed upon a man..to try the experiment, which was performed with the utmost safety.”

Good to know no sheep were harmed.

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