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Index cards and the Oxford English Dictionary

Listen to the stories about the origins of the OED.
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Could you tell us a little about the role of paper slips and other evidence sources in the history of the OED? Yes, when the idea of a comprehensive historical dictionary of English was proposed in the 1850’s the first major decision was to gather as much evidence as possible before starting to actually write the dictionary. It is essentially the same principal as underlying later work in corpus linguistics, NLP and data analytics that the more evidence of usage you have the better your analysis and the more objective your conclusions are likely to be.
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The OED’s always record how people actually use language in real context, its evidence based, its descriptive, not theoretical and prescriptive so quotations come from all kinds of written media. The
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obvious things: manuscripts, books and newspapers, film scripts, song lyrics and increasingly social media but also some more unlikely sources. So, we put stained glass windows, tombstones, sweet wrappers even. The way the OED’s quotation evidence was collected was also quite innovative. Public appeals were launched to volunteer readers in the 1850’s and by the time work began on writing the dictionary in the 1870’s over a thousand contributors worldwide had sent in several million paper slips and around two million of those were used in the dictionary’s First Edition. It was really a massive international crowdsourcing project, essentially before that word was coined. What did the slips look like and how did editors use them?
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Each 6 x 4 paper slip contained a sentence selected by a reader to illustrate a particular word, sentence or phrase. The date and the source of the quotation was noted and a bibliographical citation on the slip, and selected word or sentence was captured in the top left-hand corner of the slip to allow for easy alphabetic filing and retrieval. Editors working on a set of entries would review all relevant quotation slips and choose the quotations which they thought best illustrated the typical meaning and usage. I think the quotation slips had become a bit symbolic of the OED’s methods but really it was simply a method chosen as the most flexible at the time.
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They could be written anywhere allowing people to contribute from all over the world. They could be annotated with editorial comments or decisions but the slip was in expedient format not intrinsic to the work and I think if One Note or similar tools had been around at the time James Murray would embrace those just as enthusiastically. How are paper slips used today in the creation and update of OED entries and are they complimented with other sources? They are not used very much. The vast majority of quotations added to the OED are now retrieved from digital archives and text Corpora.
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So, in the last year we added about 95,000 quotations to the OED and fewer than two thousand of those were from the old quotation slips, so around two percent. OED was actually one of the first reference works to digitise its content to publish online, and we were also I think quick to recognise the value of computational tools and digital resources in lexicographical research. The availability of massive searchable text archives Corpora and other online resources has really transformed historical lexicography, as it has so many other areas of research. What other resources have taken the place of slips? Well OED editors are really prolific users of many digital archives.
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Early English books online, 18th century collections online, Google books of course and many collections from newspapers, periodicals and all sorts and public documents. For contemporary English, as well as various Corpora, we use all kinds of digital media so websites, blogs and Twitter quickly became really significant sources of quotable evidence for us, and they often closed the gap between spoken and written English too. We are also creating our own research resources. We have new tools showing changing word frequency over time, showing historical variance in collocational patterns, and a longstanding ambition of ours has been to create a comprehensive corpus of historical English and we are now beginning to realise that too.

In this interview, Michael Proffitt, Editor-in-Chief of the OED, shares his experience of working with index cards for the OED.

Your task

What do you think about the way in which dictionaries were created in the past?
How does it relate to your idea of dictionaries today?
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Understanding English Dictionaries

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