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The Oxford English Dictionaryis changing. In the first comprehensive revision undertaken since the original volumes were published between 1884 and 1928, every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed to improve the accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and the historical quotations. A staff of 120 scholars, research assistants, systems engineers, and project managers, plus approximately 200 specialist consultants and readers, have been working on this project since 1993. This phase of their work will conclude in 2010 when the Dictionary will have been completely re-edited in line with the best modern scholarship. This historic event will mark a new chapter in our understanding of the history and development of the English language.

[Why Revise?]

The Dictionary has been updated before, but has never received such a thorough overhaul as that currently in hand. Previous updates have added new terms, but the text of the original volumes has not changed since they were published in 1928. In the intervening century more and better resources have become available to language scholars. New historical dictionaries cover different varieties of English, specific periods of the language's development, and particular subject areas. A multitude of scholarly articles and books have been published that give a clearer understanding of the etymology of English, especially the history of words that have been borrowed from other languages. Countless other resources from both the distant and recent past are now helping scholars to refine and expand the Dictionary's coverage of the formal, colloquial, slang, and dialect vocabulary of English since the twelfth century.

Through this productive but painstaking process today's editors are creating a document that gives a more accurate representation of each word's history and development, as well as a fuller chronological and geographical coverage of the English language. Work on the revision program has already resulted in over one in every four definitions revised being augmented significantly with data on earlier usage.

[The Revision Process]

Dictionary revisions are made following a set of procedures as exacting as any laboratory experiment. Information about the language (e.g. evidence of use) is collected and interpreted, reliable sources are consulted, and final conclusions are drawn based on the mass of available data.

Because the Dictionary gives a wide variety of information for each entry, these careful revision procedures are applied in a number of different ways.


Scholars are reviewing each entry to make sure that all definitions are up to date and accurate. They check each word against a number of historical and modern databases (including the card-files contributed by generations of readers), and revise the entries to reflect shades of meaning and other features that were overlooked or unknown when the Dictionary was first edited. Specialist consultants review technical terminology, often clarifying the meanings of obscure words or adding new facts to entries.


Scholars know much more about the derivation of words than they did one hundred years ago when the original Dictionary was being edited. In particular, there are many languages other than English that now have authoritative etymological dictionaries and other scholarly literature of their own. The Dictionary's editors consult these works for more detailed insights into word origins.


All pronunciations given in the Dictionary are being reviewed to make sure they reflect how each word is pronounced today. The Dictionary uses a standardized system of pronunciation symbols known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Up till now, the keystone has been the standard pronunciation of the British Isles, but the revised Dictionary will give equal prominence to North American pronunciations, and will introduce other regional varieties where appropriate.

Illustrative Quotations

One of the most interesting features of the Dictionary is its documentation of the first recorded use of each word meaning. The Dictionary's editors monitor usage by means of a reading program; thousands of modern and historical texts are read for new and supplementary information. Scholars from around the world send in - on index cards or, more recently, via e-mail - documentation of a word's usage. Millions of these contributions are filed in the Dictionary's offices and are reviewed during the revision process.

As the work of updating and revision proceeds, scholars are reviewing the accuracy of the source quotations on which the definitions are built. Using the material collected by earlier reading programs and by consulting historical and regional dictionaries (including the mass of material available throughout the Dictionary itself), the revision team is able to demonstrate that many words originated earlier than was stated in the first edition of the Dictionary, or that the documentation previously published does not meet modern bibliographical and textual standards. The revision allows the editors to cite from more appropriate editions, to date evidence more accurately, and to supply fuller documentary evidence of each word's use in context.

New Entries

The Dictionary's reading program also provides the editorial team with many historical and modern terms that haven't yet been included in the work. Many thousands of new entries will be added to make the revised text more up to date and comprehensive than before.

[Exciting Discoveries Along the Way]

The full-scale revision of the entire Dictionary is a fascinating process that will provide readers with many new insights into word meanings and the history of the English language. Why have some words fallen into disuse? Did the great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer really invent as many new words as they are given credit for, or does new information now show that many of these words have earlier, popular, origins? Which words have fallen out of use since the original Dictionary was published? These are just some of the questions readers can research as the revision proceeds.

Because the Dictionary is now held in an electronic format, revising has become a more regular and ongoing process. Once the huge task of updating the existing work is finished, the editors will continue to add new information to the Dictionary database as they receive it, instead of storing it away for the next print revision. Readers will be able to access an online version of the Dictionary, giving them the latest information on every word in the Dictionary as soon as it is inserted in the database. These technological advances, plus the enormous number of content revisions, ensure that the Oxford English Dictionarywill be an even more authoritative record of the English language in the twenty-first century.

[OED Online]

While the Oxford English Dictionaryrevision program is going ahead, we are simultaneously planning to make Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition the published Additions volumes, revised entries, and new unpublished entries available to readers online.

The World Wide Web is a natural medium for the publication of revised entries as work in progress, and gives us the ability to make them available to readers before the third edition is completed in 2010. This concept of publication in instalments was familiar to Sir James Murray, whose original Dictionary was issued in fascicles; but the issuing of revised entries online would have the added advantage of offering a medium in which continuous revision could take place, i.e. no revised entry would be final until 2010, but could go through several publicly available versions as more antedatings were found and as more information entered our files.

We aim to publish the online Dictionary in October 1999, and to release new batches of revised entries every quarter, linking them to the original versions for comparison. This is an opportunity for an entirely new product, a natural milestone in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary,which will take it into the next century and ensure its future as an ever-growing and developing record of the language.

This article ©Copyright 1998 Oxford University Press

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©Copyright 1999 Julie Hathaway Keisman