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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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Culture and society
Examining the OED is mainly concerned with investigating OED's use of quotation sources. But there are many other fascinating topics to explore in the creation, revision, and maintenance of the OED: not just which sources the lexicographers read, in order to find quotations for words, but which words they thought deserved inclusion in the OED in the first place, and what OED's treatment of these words tells us about culture and society both then and now. The pages in this section, which is under construction, examine specific instances of culturally sensitive vocabulary (eg. relating to sex, gender, and politics).

As described at The World and the Book and The World and the OED, there has always been a widespread perception that the OED, by listing most of the words in the English language, represents British culture and society. In the words of its current Chief Editor, John Simpson, the OED 'not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society' (http://www.oed.com/public/oedhistory). But it goes without saying - or it should go without saying - that any collection of data, especially one on the scale attempted by OED, will be less than wholly perfect. There were many reasons for this, e.g.

  • The evidence to which OED's 19th- and early 20th-century lexicographers had access (printed texts of works from 1150 on, available in libraries, private collections, etc.) was necessarily limited (see more at OED1 source collection and Period coverage)
  • Readers, being human and in many cases untrained, were less than perfect, and missed some of the words in the texts which they were able to read (see more at Readers and reading)
  • Producing the Dictionary according to a manageable time-scale and keeping it to a manageable size meant that words had to be cut out in drafting and proof-reading stages (see Mugglestone 2005).

A comprehensive record of all words in the language was therefore impossible.

But it wasn't just practical factors that affected which words got into the dictionary. Cultural factors also played an important role, not only in deciding which words should be included, but how they should be defined and illustrated. For instance,

  • Some types of vocabulary - e.g. from the works of great writers - tended to be favoured over others (see Top sources).
  • Some words were defined in ways revealing cultural assumptions we should now reject. A famous example is Murray's definition for canoe (originally published 1888), which referred to the use of such boats by 'savages'. Similarly, words like darkie and blackie and jew were defined without any indication that their use was or could be racially offensive.
  • Cultural and political terms, despite being in current usage, were sometimes omitted because the editors thought them (for one reason or another) unsuitable. A sexual example is the word lesbian to mean 'female homosexual', excluded from the OED's first Supplement in 1933 (see further Brewer 2007b: 49-50 and our case-studies on words related to lesbian(ism) and catamite); a political example is Fianna Fáil, excluded from the same work (see Brewer 2007b: 73-4 and Politics).  
  • Many other words relating to sex and the body were (1) excluded (e.g. fuck and cunt, also terms like sponge and sheath denoting various forms of birth control; see further Mugglestone 2007), (2) defined only in Latin (e.g twat; see Brewer 2007b: 204-5) or (3) deprived of illustrative quotations (e.g. cock = 'penis'; see Brewer 2007b: 225-6).

Such vocabulary was often in regular and common use, as we can see by reading newspapers and other contemporary texts. Its exclusion from OED, or OED's differential treatment of it, points to the fact that this great dictionary's reflection of society is sometimes far from straightforward.

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