2002 is indeed an auspicious year. It is the first year that can celebrate a World Cup, a Royal Jubilee, and a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. In terms of frequency, a new Shorter comes between the other two events: it is almost ten years since the previous edition, and this is only the fifth edition of a book that was first published in 1933.
People often point out that this two-volume work has a strange title. Of course it's only `Short' when compared to the twenty volumes of the full Oxford English Dictionary. Although one tenth the size of the OED, it manages to include around one third of its content: it aims to include all words used in English since 1700, as well as everything in Shakespeare, the Authorized Version of the Bible, the poetry of Milton, and Spenser's Faerie Queene. As a historical dictionary, it includes obsolete words if they are used by major authors and earlier meanings where they explain the development of a word. More than ten centuries of English are covered here, from the Old English period to the 21st century.
Some 3,500 new entries have been added to the fifth edition. Asylum seeker, economic migrant, bed-blocking, and stakeholder pension reflect the serious side of life; bunny-hugger (a conservationist or animal lover), chick flick (a film appealing to women), gearhead (a car enthusiast), and Grinch (a spoilsport or killjoy) are entries in a more light-hearted vein. Several entries are testaments to the popularity of science fiction, among them Tardis from the TV series Doctor Who, Jedi from Star Wars, and Klingon from Star Trek.
So how does new vocabulary get into our dictionaries? Our main resource is the Oxford Reading Programme. An army of people all around the world read selected books, magazines, newspapers, and even TV scripts in search of entirely new words, or interesting new uses of existing words. More than 17,000 citations pour in each month and are loaded into a vast searchable database that now contains some 70 million words. Editors note down words and phrases that we come across in our daily lives and recognize as possible candidates for inclusion; we will then try to establish whether there is enough hard evidence of their use for them to be included, by checking the suggestions against the database. Conversely, we also produce and analyse a regular list of the most frequently occurring new terms in the database.
The rule of thumb for the OED is that a word can be included if it appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years. However, such is the pace with which terms are introduced and spread today that words can demand inclusion within a year of their first appearance. Some words appear to force themselves into the lexicon almost overnight. An example is asymmetrical warfare, which is one of the terms brought to prominence by the events of September 11. Interestingly, however, a search of our database revealed that we did have evidence of its use a year before that.
While some words suddenly burst on to the scene, others creep up gradually. A good example is the aforementioned Tardis. This is not a new term by any means (the programme was first broadcast in 1963), but over the years it has gradually become established as a way of referring to something larger on the inside than it appears from the outside, as well as meaning `a time machine'. Our database reveals several examples of the former sense, e.g. `the high-ceilinged back bar of this Tardis-like pub' (1990 Good Pub Guide).
It is one of the great strengths of the Shorter that it is large enough to account for cultural allusions, and to keep its coverage of them up to date. An example is the new phrase go up to eleven. This comes from a scene in the comedy film This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which a guitar player shows off a supposedly louder amplifier with control knobs having 11 rather than 10 as the top setting. Most of the citations on our database refer to musicians `turning their guitars up to 11', but we noticed that recently people have started to use the phrase in other contexts. Take this 2001 example, from Heat magazine: `Julia has set her feistiness setting to 11 in her role of tough Samantha'. In a few years' time, the link with music could have been obscured or even lost entirely; alternatively, the phrase could have fallen from use, remaining as a historical curiosity that the Shorter explains to students of this period!
Looking at the words added to the text since the last edition in 1993 is certainly an interesting experience. Imagine a world, not so long ago, without alcopops, carjacking, control freaks, DVDs, line dancing (or lap dancing), pashminas, road rage, shock jocks, speed cameras, or supermodels. Happy days! However, it also appeared to be a world with no balsamic vinegar, BLTs, bruschetta, cava, chargrilling, or dauphinois potatoes, and no Heimlich manoeuvre to save the unwary diner. And, of course, there was no Internet.
The older material in the dictionary offers many delights. In ten centuries of English there have been some pretty odd words, and the Shorter contains most of them. How about hodad (a boastful surfer), hoggerel (a young sheep), muffin-worry (a tea party), poddy-dodger (a cattle thief), rantipole (a wild person), and repristinate (restore to a good condition)? Then there's circumbendibus, gandy dancer, lallygag, pibble-pabble, slick-licker, and many others. Strange as they may sound, these words have all had some currency in English since 1700.
One of the characteristic features of the Shorter is the use of quotations to bring definitions to life. For the new edition 500 new quotations have been added by such writers as Bill Bryson, Jonathan Coe, Douglas Coupland, Stephen Jay Gould, John Grisham, Nick Hornby, Frank McCourt, and J. K. Rowling. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding yields seven quotes, for example at the word obsess, `He indulged me while I obsessed to him about my unattractiveness crisis'. Quentin Tarantino's terse contribution would serve as a suitable rejoinder: `Tell her to chill!'
These are welcome additions to the 83,000 existing quotations in the text. Searching them for a suitable finishment to this article (yes, it is a word, it dates back to the Middle Ages although is pretty rare nowadays), I found many eminently suitable citations. I like `It's all big words nowadays in whatever you read' (Antony Burgess) and `Words I must ever hold sacred' (William Golding), but I will leave you with `Words aptly culled, and meanings well exprest' (George Crabbe).
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.