Inside the OED: Can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

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In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.

In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”.

Spending 12 months tracing the history of a two-letter word seems dangerously close to folly. But the purpose of a historical dictionary such as the OED is to give such questions the solemnity they deserve. An Oxford lexicographer might need to snoop on Twitter spats from a decade ago; or they might have to piece together a painstaking biography of one of the oldest verbs in the language (the revised entry for “go” traces 537 separate senses over 1,000 years). “Well, we have to get things right,” the dictionary’s current chief editor, Michael Proffitt, told me.

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