Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Inside the OED, Part 2: Expanding Electronically

Last week in part one of our interview with Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower, we talked about the OED's century-and-a-half reliance on volunteer readers to help gather historical citations — a practice now trendily called "crowdsourcing." This week we delve into how the OED has adapted to the digital age through the creation of the online edition, which includes the entire text of the 20-volume print edition as well as all the newly revised material for the planned Third Edition. It's an unprecedented electronic undertaking, but some worry that it presages the end of the print OED.

VT: Let's talk about the OED Online in general. As opposed to the First and Second Editions, the work that's done on the Third Edition is automatically put onto the online version of the OED, with draft entries published in the form of quarterly updates.  How has that changed the editorial work that's done? 

JS: In terms of the publication process itself, it mainly means that it appears to the public much more quickly.  It doesn't significantly affect how we work because entries are still edited very carefully and with great attention to detail.  We're not just throwing things up and hoping we can fix them later. Everything still gets looked at by the same number of people and in the same depth.  So that hasn't changed.  What is different is that it gets out there very fast, so that instead of publishing in small parts of, let's say, 64 or 128 pages that are sent out to libraries regularly, the material appears online.  Everyone can see it right away at a very regular pace and people can know when the new material is going to be released. Instead of having to wait many decades for the whole thing to appear, people can see what we're doing pretty much as we're doing it.

VT: Will the official publication of the complete Third Edition simply happen in cyberspace whenever the final entry is revised?

JS: Well, we don't know at this point what the full publication will consist of.  Right now, the Third Edition is appearing online.  And the entries that we've published now, while they are labeled "draft," are in fact Third Edition entries.  So in some sense when we've published the last entry, the Third Edition will be complete.  But that does not mean that we are only publishing the Third Edition online.  We have not decided the form of the Third Edition.  This is something that people have commented on — most recently in an article in the New York Times Magazine, where people came away with the impression that we would not be printing a Third Edition of the OED.  That implication is not really true.  What is the case is that we haven't decided on whether we will print a Third Edition of the OED, and that's a very different thing. 

I think it should be clear to everyone that there are significant questions about printing a work of this size in the medium-term future.  I can't say for sure right now — and I don't think anyone can — what the perceived need will be for what would be a 40-volume print dictionary twenty years from now.  I very much hope there is a print version, and we are editing it with an eye towards print.  We are not throwing in tons of entries because we have unlimited Web space.  We're being very careful to keep the entries to a reasonable size.  And that's not going to change just because we're publishing online.

VT: In the New York Times Magazine piece, Virginia Heffernan expressed a lot of anxiety about the prospect of a Web-only OED.  She said it made her nervous.  What do you think about that anxiety and where do you think it comes from?

JS: I do a lot of things online, and I love that.  But I love books too.  And I want books to continue to exist.  I want the OED to continue to exist in print form.  I think there's a sense that things that exist online are not as "serious" or as permanent as works that appear in print.  And the thought that work of this magnitude would not ever appear in that form is somewhat frightening.

VT: Since the advent of the online edition, I'd imagine that there have been many advantages to the user and perhaps a general increase in the use of the OED. So what might be lost in the process?  The sense of permanence when you have the bound volumes on the shelf and being able to pull one down and riffle through the pages?

JS: While a work such as a dictionary is very well-suited for online publication, I think there is a difference between reading something online and reading something on paper.  And we work hard to try to preserve the reading experience as much as possible.  For example, one of the things that people often talk about when they talk about reading the OED — or reading any dictionary — is that you find things you didn't know you were looking for. You see related entries or nearby entries that you wouldn't have looked at.  And we can't fully replicate that online, but we try to do some things to approach that. 

For example, wherever you are in the online dictionary, there is a sidebar where you have all the words that surround the entry alphabetically.  You can go to any nearby word and you can scroll that list separately, just as you can flip through the pages of a dictionary.  So you can approximate that.  It's not the same thing as reading it on paper, but it's one of the things that people most talk about and we wanted to do what we could to try to preserve that.  But the process of reading, the process of being able to take in a larger amount of information than you can on a typical computer screen, these are real things that will be different with this process.

VT: Tell us about some other advantages of having the dictionary online.

JS: First of all, you have access to the new material, which is sort of obvious but in fact is very important, as compared to anything that's available on paper.  You can also do all sorts of elaborate searching, ranging from searching the full text of a dictionary to searching by authors.  You can change your view, so if you're just interested in the senses of an entry, you can shut off the quotations.  If you're not interested in etymologies, you can shut those off.  You can look for words based on time period, or based on subject, or based on language.  So you can construct searches that will show you all the words that entered English from French in the 1570s.  That's a fairly straightforward thing you can do.  People have done things like this on paper, but it's taken them years and years to do this kind of research by paging through the OED entry by entry.

VT: What might be in store for the online edition, in terms of making the user experience a richer one?

JS: In the future, I think one of the big changes will be that the OED and many other scholarly projects will no longer be independent projects which just happen to be placed online. So instead of having just an OED that is highly searchable within itself, you can have it link to other historical dictionary projects or to biographical records of authors that are quoted in there or people that are mentioned in quotations. You can have links to fuller text of works that are cited in brief in the OED, or to images of items that are defined in the OED.  You can link to different versions of a text that are quoted, when you look at the manuscript tradition of different texts. 

This is not something that just the OED is working on.  These are ideas that humanities researchers in general are working on. And the more that the community of researchers works on all of these things, the more that any individual project in the humanities can take advantage of them.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 6th 2008, 7:39 PM
Comment by: Andy S. (Australia)Top 10 Speller
I was delighted to find that the publisher of this venerable publication has his feet firmly rooted in the present with an eye to the future, respecting the past. Until today, if I'd been asked "What are your initial impressions of the OED?" Words like "stuffy, old fashioned and stuck in the past" immediately come to mind. And quite outrageously I'm realise on further reflection that I have no actual data to base these impressions"
It's great to have an opportunity to amend one's opinion when presented with new data. As a direct result of this editor's work, instead of being relegated to the history books, my guess is that the OED will remain relevant for many years to come.

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Part one of our three-part interview with the OED's Jesse Sheidlower.
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Grant Barrett recommends books on the art of dictionary-making.