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Preface to the Second Edition (1989)

The history of the Oxford English Dictionary (continued)

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The New Oxford English Dictionary project (continued)

Editorial Processes

During the course of the project, the text of the Dictionary was emended in numerous ways, over and above the central activity of integrating the matter from the Supplement into the main OED. Many classes of change were logically necessitated by integration; others, notably the adoption of the International Phonetic Alphabet and the addition of new words, were undertaken in order to increase the usefulness of the Dictionary. These alterations (a detailed explanation of which is given in the foregoing Introduction) were made during the three main stages by which the new edition was produced: initial data capture, automatic text processing, and interactive editing.

During initial data capture the chief amendments to the text were: the provision of transliteration for foreign script where the source text lacked it; the resolution of hyphenation problems; research on quotations with questionable text or imperfect citations; and the regularization of individual aberrantly structured entries. Before automatic text processing began, every main headword and bold subordinate headword in the OED that required an initial capital was marked by editorial staff and this information keyed into the computer, enabling the text and cross-references to be automatically emended. The system itself automatically carried out the conversion of the ICC tagging system to the generalized mark-up language; the translation of the Murray phonetic symbols and stress-marks into their IPA equivalents; the addition of a part of speech or homonym number to headwords no longer unique after integration; and the adjustment of cross-reference details affected by integration. The correction (by editors at the screen) of irregularities encountered by the parser was made at this stage, but corrections to capitalization, cross-references, and the phonetic transcriptions were made during the third stage. Many problems with the five hundred or so rarely occurring special characters, detected in the middle stage, were dealt with then too.

During the stage of interactive integration, galley-proof reading, and correction checking, the lexicographical group was notably assisted by a wide range of computer searches, the results of which were furnished on printed reports which could be tailored into formats of maximum usefulness. Among other matters, these reports covered unresolved cross-references, erroneous or ambiguous phonetic transcriptions, italicized phrases with initial capital letters, stray pronunciations that had not been converted to IPA, and entries with abnormal sense orders and structures. In addition, it was at this stage that the editorial group entered the addenda and spurious entries from Volume XII of the OED; the corrections which had been prepared for Volumes I and II of the Supplement but not inserted in them; and a host of minor corrections assembled on slips before and during the previous stages of the project. The entries for the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and for certain similar two-letter groups, were also given special attention at this stage, as were many main entries from the Supplement which, for completeness' sake, required the transfer of portions of text from other (originally OED) entries. It may be said without exaggeration that the apparently straightforward task of amalgamating the two texts turned out to have ramifications and implications so multifarious, protean, and unpredictable that the project team occasionally despaired of detecting them all; and it is also freely acknowledged that resources sometimes did not permit them to carry out changes prescribed in the Supplement to quite the extent or degree implied by the latter. No effort was spared, however, in the attempt to carry out faithfully both the overt instructions and the implied purport of every one of the 69,372 entries in the Supplement.

The future of the OED

It was recognized at the start of the project that no enhancements of the Dictionary could be carried out before the texts of the Supplement and the first edition of the OED had been combined. This amalgamation has been achieved, and the OED now exists in a second edition. But the English language continues to develop, the requirements of lexicography continue to change, and, accordingly, work on the OED continues too. The most important way in which the OED can be updated is by the addition of new words and senses, and this task is well in hand. Already 5,000 new items have been added to the second edition, and these can be regarded as an earnest of many more that are in the course of compilation. It has become very clear to the editors of this edition that virtually no new item can be added to the Dictionary without repercussions upon the entries already there. Purely as a result of integration, therefore, many changes have been made to the text which fall into the category of revision. Then, outside this sphere, the most important global revision of the text - the replacement of Murray's phonetic transcription with IPA - has already been achieved (though it could helpfully be extended, for example by the coverage of non-RP varieties). In short, the revision and updating of the OED is already well under way.

Much, however, remains to be done. Indeed some parts of the task could never be completed once for all, but that should be no deterrent from making a start. There is much in the style of the Dictionary, the punctuation, the capitalization, the definitional terminology, and the spelling (within entries and even of some headwords) that calls for modernization. In the cross-reference system, many improvements are desirable, notably in the citation of variant spellings as headwords and in the more precise specification of parts of speech, homonym numbers, and sense numbers. In the etymologies, the varying systems of transcription should be harmonized, the linguistic nomenclature should be brought up to date, and the results of recent research should be added. The organization of senses within many entries needs to be rethought. Numerous scientific and technical definitions need to be brought into line with present-day knowledge (though the Supplement amended the treatment of many of the most important terms). Many of the definitions of general vocabulary need to be reworked to take account of recent technological and social changes. There are a number of references to countries, currency values, institutions, and persons, which are now anachronistic; and there are still a few definitions which enshrine social attitudes that are now alien. The usage and subject labels should be made fully consistent and modernized.

Many current words are illustrated by a latest quotation from the first half of the nineteenth century, or even earlier, and it is difficult to distinguish them from words or senses that are now, in fact, disused. Recent examples ought to be supplied for every sense that is still current. The citation style of many quotations from the original OED could well be brought up to the standard of consistency of the Supplement (although improving it would require the rechecking of many thousands of quotations). Earlier examples exist (in various places) for thousands of words and senses, and these should be added. The coverage of English before 1700, and at least as far back as 1500, could be markedly improved. Last, but certainly not least, the coverage of English outside the United Kingdom needs to be greatly expanded, especially the English of North America, which is the greatest source of linguistic change, but not neglecting the English of the many other parts of the world where it is a first or important second language.

Other improvements could be mentioned, but these are the principal aspects of the OED on which there is work to be done, as most regular users of the Dictionary will recognize, however greatly they admire it. To these improvements the New OED project team hope to address their efforts in the coming years, so that the Oxford English Dictionary may continue to be an accurate and comprehensive register of the whole vocabulary of English.

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