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Word Searchers

Jane Griffiths and Edmund Weiner tell of plans to bring the Oxford English Dictionary up to date and how historians can help.

The Oxford English Dictionary must be familiar to most historians as a valuable source of information about the terminology that they encounter in their field of study. The first edition, published serially between 1884 and 1928, and thereafter in twelve volumes, was the first truly historical dictionary. It traced the history of every word in the English language from its earliest to its latest known occurrence, classifying the meanings, phraseological combinations and compounds of each word chronologically, and presenting a chronological range of illustrative examples for each use.
The second edition (OED2), published in 1989 in twenty volumes, was not a full revision of the first, but it incorporated four volumes of new material mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from the whole English-speaking world. A CD-Rom version of 1993 made the integrated text available for electronic searching. Now Oxford University Press is undertaking a complete revision of the whole dictionary. As from last month, serial publication of the revised OED began on the Internet, where the complete text of the second edition has also been made available.
The CD-Rom version of the Dictionary was widely acclaimed by researchers. It permitted the gathering and collation of information in ways that were not practicable using the printed dictionary. Definitions searched by key words, such as ‘textile’ or ‘firearm’, enable data to be rapidly collected, while the 240,000 quotations represent a unique cultural database. The OED Online (which, to begin with, will be available through institutions such as universities and public libraries) builds on this success. It will offer the same facilities, but can easily be up-dated, expanding its content as new revisions are made and added.

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