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Re-launched OED Online
In December 2010 OED Online was completely reconfigured, with major changes made to the appearance of the website, to its content and to its search tools. These changes have transformed the Dictionary and the way that users consult it. Evidently, they have been driven by a wish to make the workings of the OED more transparent - in particular, to help users understand its fundamental reliance on the evidence of quotations for the Dictionary's definitions and its tracing of different meanings at different stages in a word's history.

Many of the new features deliver wonderfully full information on quotation sources, some of which are discussed on the following pages. One of the most significant changes introduced in the re-launch, however, is the removal of OED2 from the OED Online website. As a result, it is now no longer possible to search, or consult systematically in any way, the previous version of the OED, the second edition of 1989. And the consequence of this - which cannot have been intended - is a major loss of transparency: users can no longer track the progress of the current revision or identify what changes the third-edition revisers are making to lexicographical principle and practice.

No full account appears on the website itself (there is a summary notice of the transformation at http://www.oed.com/public/welcome/welcome-to-the-new-oed-online/). Read the Introduction to our review of the new site further down this page, or click on one of the headings below to go straight to a description of one of the new features or changes. It should be noted that the re-launched website is continually changing in a process of updating, revision and addition: so the following pages should be regarded as a snapshot of OED Online as at December 2011. Note: the pages in OED Online's 'About' section, which contains explanatory material, are not dated, nor previous versions archived and available to public view, so it is sometimes hard to be sure which new features and articles have appeared when.

Main changes

Other changes

Like the version it replaced, the re-launched OED Online advertises itself as 'the definitive record of the English Language'. Given the enormous (and unmatched) quantities of scholarly information accessible via the website, this claim has much to recommend it. It disguises the fact, however, that OED Online continues to contain some very out-of-date material. This can be seen straightaway by looking up one of the words used on the new 'Welcome page', where the editor John Simpson specifies 'new functionality' as an important feature of the new website. The term functionality is defined by OED Online as 'functional character', a definition reproduced unchanged from OED's first publication of the entry in 1898. The two supporting quotations are dated 1871 and 1879. Clearly this treatment of the term is inadequate.

This single example (which can be replicated thousands of times) demonstrates one of the major problems with the re-launched website. Despite its up-to-the-minute design, and despite the thousands of revised entries which have been incorporated into the Dictionary over the last ten years, around two-thirds of OED Online's content derives unchanged, or only partially changed, from first publication well over a hundred years ago. In the case of functionality, as in that of many other words, the entry has accreted uneven layers of revision, with new material added first in the 1972 volume of the Supplement, and then - on three separate occasions - in Draft Additions in 1993, 2001, and 2006 respectively. Yet core meanings in today's language remain untreated, or confusingly defined in nineteenth-century terms. (For an up-to-date definition of functionality, see one of OED's sister-sites, Oxford Dictionaries Online at http://english.oxforddictionaries.com/).

There is no shame in the slow progress of revision. The original OED took over 70 years to complete. Today's revision is arguably an equally ambitious project and has been in train for a fraction of that time (under 20 years). The revised entries attain high levels of scholarship and are eminently useful to the general public and a more academic audience alike. However, the new website misleads the user, since it makes it so very difficult for anyone other than the most sophisticated of lexicographical historians to navigate the baffling mixture of old and new contained within.

Users familiar with the old website, who have followed the OED revision closely since its first online publication in March 2000, will recall that the revisers began in the middle of the alphabet, at the letter M. By December 2010 they had revised the entire alphabetic sequence M-R, while also (since March 2008) revising short selected sequences of entries outside M-R. On the old website, this progress was clearly recorded, so that users were able to consult a list giving them precise details of what had been revised when. These pages have been taken down and have yet to be replaced. The re-launched website appears to give no information explaining to the user which alphabet ranges have been revised, or what proportion of today's OED is new and what old.

Those consulting individual entries can, if they are observant and savvy, spot the date of an entry and work out its provenance using various tools and tricks. The most important evidence here might seem utterly obvious: the central column of the entry, to the right of the main text, which reads Third Edition [plus month and date of composition, e.g. 'November 2010'], or Second edition, 1989. Yet it is remarkable how many users overlook this section of the screen (including academics and students of English literature and language). 

Those wishing to use the new search tools, allowing one to analyse the Dictionary contents in many exciting ways - how many words entered the language at a particular date or during a specified period of years, or how many (and which) words are first recorded in the work of a particular source or author - must exercise extreme caution in interpreting search results. See more on the next page but one in this section: New search tools

Last Updated ( Sunday, 12 February 2012 )
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