The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) project began in 1857 with the goal of reflecting changes in how English is used. It was ambitious back then, but today must work at breakneck speed to keep up with a rapidly-expanding vocabulary fomented by technological advancement and exchanged over the internet. Fiona McPherson is a senior editor at the OED. She gave Speak Up a behind-the-scenes view of how the modern dictionary project works, beginning by describing the process of developing a new entry: 

Fiona McPherson (Scottish accent): My job is as a new words editor, so I am responsible for putting brand new words into the dictionary. And I will start with a suggestion that somebody has made for a word that’s not yet in the OED. So, I will take my suggestion, I’ll make sure that I can find that there is evidence that this word is being used, because again, if it isn’t, we wouldn’t include it. And then I try to find the very first example that has been published in English. And I’ll define the word and I’ll try to find examples from published works which show the typical ways that this word is used. And I just carry on from there, really. It’s a bit of detective work really.

English, just as it is

The OED is a descriptive, not prescriptive dictionary. That means it doesn’t establish how English ‘should’ be used but rather records how it ‘is’ used, as McPherson explains.

Fiona McPherson: One question I get asked a lot is whether or not slang and offensive language has any place in a dictionary. And really, to take slang, slang is part of what makes any language much more rich and varied. And because a word is in the OED, or indeed any dictionary, it doesn’t mean that you have to use it. We’re not telling people what words to use, we’re just really recording the language that people are using. So slang words are definitely, completely legitimate for inclusion in the OED.

Bad language

That also means including vulgar or even racist and sexist words, says McPherson, with appropriate labelling.

Fiona McPherson: Offensive words, because they also form part of the language, we wouldn’t be doing our job it we didn’t include these words as well. But what we always make sure we do is use any appropriate labelling, so that we’ll say that a word is slang, we’ll say that it’s colloquial, we’ll say that it’s offensive, if indeed it is offensive. So that people know when they see these words, ‘OK you maybe want to be careful about using this word in certain contexts or if you use this word you actually might be being quite offensive.’

social media speech

In last month’s Speak Up, the writer Simon Winchester described how contributions sent through the post by thousands of ordinary people formed the basis of the dictionary’s first edition, completed in 1928. McPherson talked about how suggestions from the public are still very much part of the OED process, although these days they’re usually submitted via Twitter or email. 

Fiona McPherson: We always love when people contact us with suggestions for words that we maybe haven’t yet included in the dictionary, or also suggestions for already existing entries. It goes back to the very foundation of what the OED was built upon, when people would send examples of words that they had come across in their everyday reading to the first editors. We very much value the public’s input because without the public and people using language, there would be no reason for a dictionary, so it’s a real cornerstone of what we do.