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The OED is 80: New Words and the Case of the Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

Among the many interesting talks from various senior editors of the OED, this morning we had Fiona McPherson from the OED new words team telling us about how a new word is added to the Oxford English Dictionary and the processes they go through to do it.

Fiona and her team collect suggestions for words (or “lexical items”) to be added to the OED in a variety of ways. Sometimes members of the public write in with suggestions, sometimes they come from words being used a lot in the news, or they find them in novels and other writing. They also have a series of dedicated reading programmes. Fiona works with the UK-English Contemporary team.  Here, a team of readers scour all types of printed matter from all over the English-speaking world for new words or senses. This can include anything from literature and non-fiction, to TV or radio scripts, or even newsletters; anything, as long as it has a date ascribable to it.

When a word is found, through whichever of those means, that isn’t in the OED and should be, the new words team start with an essentially blank page which they have to fill with a large amount of information such as pronunciation (UK and US), etymology, definition, and a paragraph of quotations showing the word in use. When all this is done, the word is then passed on to the etymology team, who go into more in-depth etymological research.

Often, Fiona said, they find a “new” word isn’t quite as new as they thought. She used the example of the phrase ‘weapon of mass destruction’, which was added to the OED in 2004. She said she was fairly sure that the phrase did indeed go back further than the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, and was unsurprised to find evidence of it being in use around the time of the first Gulf conflict in the early 1990s – indeed that was the rough date of the earliest evidence they found for the abbreviated form ‘WMD’. However, she was amazed to find that the examples of the full ‘weapon of mass destruction’ kept going back and back until she found the earliest written usage so far:

Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?

This was from the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Times. The date? 28 December 1937. Amazing.

Read more about the OED’s 80th birthday celebrations here.

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