A trip to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online is an adventure into an immense cabinet of lexiconical wonders. More than just a reference source, the OED is a playground for linguaphiles. The beauty of the OED lies in its search for the historical record of words—each entry features the earliest known usage of each word and as well as several other examples that note how the word has been used over time.
Lexicon: A word-book or dictionary.
As long as the English language has been around, it has changed and adapted to suit cultural needs. And as long as it has done so, there have been those who decry those changes as the downfall of the language; the golden age of linguistic competance has ended—Alexander Pope famously expressed such a feeling over the introduction of the contraction “it’s” for “it is” in the 18th century. However, language is a moving thing that contorts into new ways to suit the ease of human communication and a language has never “devolved” itself to the point where no one can understand it—as those who complain about the state of the language often warn will happen.
The OED is the forefront documenter of the English language, and in its second edition, the OED runs at a hefty 20 volumes. The OED has always been an enormous collaborative process from its inception in the mid-19th century, to the ongoing efforts to document English language–usage today. The OED originated with the Philological Society of London, who hardly knew what they were getting into when they put out the call for “unregistered” words (words that did not previously appear in a dictionary) to put together in a pamphlet. This first call for words sparked the initial project which spanned from 1859–1928, and multiple editors failed to live long enough to see it completed including the principle editor of the first edition of the OED, James Murray. Murray’s story is a fascinating one—and has been documented brilliantly by Simon Winchester in his 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Although the first edition of the dictionary was completed in 1928, the hunt for words and attempts to find earlier usage of words continued throughout the 20th century, and a second edition of the OED was published in 1989. The OED debuted online in 1999, and continues to expand.
The dictionary is now available in many physical forms in addition to the online version: the complete Oxford English Dictionary currently runs at 20 volumes (and for the most dedicated bibliophile, the complete OED can be purchased leather-bound for a mere $12 thousand—the hardback will still set its owner back about $1050); the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, which comes with a magnifying glass; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary comes in two volumes with a tri-column format, and is by no means lightweight; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which could also easily double as a footstool; as well the myriad of desk editions, pocket editions, thesauruses, and reference texts that are sufficient for most users.
Desiderata: Something for which a desire or longing is felt; something wanting and required or desired.
The first appeals for public contributions to the OED were printed on pamphlets which were sent around the world. Words with their documented usage were returned by post and ordered alphabetically into cubbyholes in a shed in Britain—a lengthy process, and it’s hardly surprising that it took 69 years to publish the first edition. Fast forward to 2012 and on their homepage the OED still appeals for submissions from the public so that they can continue to expand their lexicon. The OED is looking for evidence of word usage prior to their current first-known recorded usages. The Internet has become an invaluable tool of refinement for the process.
Apposite: Well put or applied; appropriate, suitable (to).
Every year in Nov., the OED selects a word of the year for both the U.S. and Britain, which reflects the cultural climate of the previous 12 months. These words may have been around for a length of time and have gained sudden popularity, or they may be newly coined terms. Not every word of the year will necessarily enter into the OED; often their staying power has to be assessed before an official entry into the dictionary will be made. This year’s words of the year are, in the U.S., gif : short for graphics interchange format (a common image format on the Internet), and in Britain, omnishambles: “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.”
Words of the Year
2011 squeezed middle
2010 big society
2008 credit crunch
2007 carbon footprint
2011 squeezed middle
2006 carbon neutral