The Oxford English Dictionary throws a 90th birthday party

Recycling content, highlighting historical employees and calling for contributions, the English language’s leading lexicon celebrates its past with a ‘globular organ of sight’ to the future.

The Oxford English Dictionary throws a 90th birthday party

I first discovered the Oxford English Dictionary when I was a 17-year-old exchange student in Sydney, living with a family in which both parents were academics.

In their overburdened bookcases they kept the great lexicon, boxed with a magnifying glass, because the publisher had shrunk the entire multivolume set into two volumes printed in a minuscule font more suited to a newspaper for ants.

The OED—which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year—traced even the simplest words to such distant roots, they were not even recognizable as English. I remember encountering the word “break,” and finding a citation from about the year 1000 of Psalm 2:9, which in Old English reads, Swa swa fæt tigelen ðu bricst hi (“You will break them with a rod of iron”).

A dictionary’s birthday probably doesn’t merit an all-employee communiqué. It won’t crowd your town hall meeting off the calendar, nor take the place of the latest diversity initiative. For those of us who spend so much of our time with words, however, it is worth revisiting this magnificent work.

NASA might have gotten men to the moon; The New York Times might be America’s newspaper of record; the New England Patriots might be Super Bowl contenders year after aggravating year. But it is hard to think of an institution that dominates its landscape the way the Oxford English Dictionary does English.

Talk about using your content and highlighting your employees to mark an organizational milestone; the OED’s 90th anniversary page delves deep into its fathomless archives. Nostalgic for the sixties? You’ll find words of that era, such as fab (1961), knock-out (1966), grotty (1964), miniskirt (1962), teenyboppers (1966) and naff (1966).

If you’re inspired by noteworthy lexicographers (aren’t we all?), learn about the career of South African dictionary-maker Penny Silva, whose team added the words kraal, veld, koppie, bonsella and sjambok. The last is “One of those infernal whips, made from the hide of a rhinoceros or sea-cow, known by the name of sambocs [sjamboks],” per an 1804 OED entry.

Want to know more about lexicographers at war—World War I, that is? Read up John Wixon Birt, a grocer’s son who started work there at age 15, went off to battle, and returned to the OED after being gassed in combat.

Or discover the back stories of Jessie Coulson, the first woman named on an Oxford dictionary’s title page, and her co-worker James McLeod Wyllie. The latter tragically went mad, claiming “to have had a revelation about a means of eliminating pain, disease, and war from the world.”

If you’ve shared a cubicle with a colleague absolutely nobody could work with, comfort yourself that Wyllie had to carry out his research for a time in distant Aberdeen, apparently to avoid conflict with other staffers. (Perhaps working remotely could be a solution for your own noxious associate.)

“Lord of the Rings” fans will be fascinated to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the staff of the OED shortly after the Great War. The first word he is known to have researched was waggle. (Note to self: Work this word into your copy today.) Fascinatingly, for an author who conjured fantastical orcs, wargs, werewolves and elephant-like Mûmakil, Tolkien also examined the word walrus (or horschwælum in Old English, in case your VP of communication springs a pop quiz on you this afternoon).

I like to think it was Tolkien himself who dug up this old reference from 1796: “The seals, walrosses [cq], and cod, caught in the Russian seas, are likewise very important articles.”

Searching for work words

OED has added a social aspect to its anniversary year, calling on readers to help identify the words, phrases and expressions particular to their workplace.

The dictionary notes that “you’d probably rather not hear your doctor describe someone as a gomer (that is, a difficult or disagreeable patient), and your veterinary friend may shy away from explaining DSTO (our sources tell us that it means ‘dog smarter than owner’). However, at other times, not understanding the words used in a trade just leads to confusion. Not everyone knows, for instance, that ‘sweating the pipes’ is plumbing slang for soldering two pipes together.”

To solicit new entries, publishers of the already brimming compendium are using the hashtag #WordsAtWork.

Quartz at Work reports:

Before the age of the internet, dictionary editors had to take out magazine ads if they wanted to find out about new words that were being used across the English-speaking world, [lexicographer Jeffrey] Sherwood said. Online databases and tools have changed that, but the OED is still on the hunt for words that have slipped into usage but aren’t yet defined. In the past year, it has crowdsourced words that young people and teens use; words associated with hobbies; and words specific to certain regions. Now the team is interested in the words people use at work, and it’s conducting a three-month-long call-out for people to submit words associated with their chosen specialties. Thousands of words are submitted during these kinds of appeals; a few dozen go in.

Already some interesting submissions have arrived:


Good luck, beloved wordsmiths. I know I don’t have to ask you to keep your standards high, unlike your wanton cousins at Oxford Dictionaries. (Side boob? Cray clickbait? Bro hug—and amazeballs?)

Today I consult the online (subscription) version of the OED many times a day. It has become my preferred dictionary, even though I cherish the 1971 two-volume print edition I found in a used bookstore. Lest we forget why OED is ever hunting for new words and uses, here’s a word that didn’t merit an entry in 1971: internet. It says only, “INTERNET: See INTER- pref. [preface] 1 b.”

Today, internet and its compounds comprise 4,449 words worth of definitions and citations.

We traditionalists might wish to hold back the tides of time, but language swirls and changes like the surface of the sea in a rough wind. The OED helps us navigate the storms.

Bro hug, my mad lexicographer friends.

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