The dictionary man: 'These days I won't get out of bed for a word unless it's been used hundreds of thousand of times'

The OED’s outgoing editor has overseen the title’s transition to digital, and now the problems of documenting language changes in our texting, tweeting age
  • @tompeck

There is something faintly comic, now, about the pioneering work John Simpson did when he took over the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid 1980s. Not the concise one, at one point in almost every home, the grand solver of Scrabble rows, but the massive 20 volume one that haunts the corner of serious libraries the world over.

"At the end of the 1970s, the university was considering mothballing it," he says, in his office at the Oxford University Press, next to, predictably a fairly large library containing nothing but dictionaries. "Then, in the mid 1980s this opportunity arose to scan or keyboard the whole of it, and transfer it on to CD Rom and magnetic tape."

He may not have saved the OED, a work of not even nearly paralleled significance as a historical record of the world's pre-eminent language, but he certainly re-invigorated it. Later this year, after 37 years of historical lexicography - searching for uses of words as far back as records will allow, and using their evolution to illuminate the history of culture and civilisation - the 59-year-old is to stand down as the dictionary's Chief Editor.

After the magnetic tape, and the CD-ROM came, you may have noticed, the internet, but Simpson is more sceptical than some about just how revolutionary its implications are on the language.

"People write more now than they did even in the very old days. When I was growing up, apart from what you wrote at school, and maybe birthday and christmas thank you letters, that was it. Now you're doing it in all your spare time, you're texting somebody Even if you don't know how to text, your grand daughter or someone knows how to so you have to learn.  So people are much freer and more open in what they write about, and you're more likely to accept acronysms, SMS speak. LOL is in the OED already. Some of these things are older than you think. You see C.U. way back in history, far older than its SMS usage. But that doesn't upset the core of the language, which is pretty solid and pretty standard and has been for a long time.

"Big changes aren't happening so fast as they were in the old days. If you lived in 1000, and then looked ahead to 1500 you wouldn't understand the words and the accents that were being used then, especially with the influx of French. I don't see such cataclysmic change happening in the future.

"From 1750 or so, from Samuel Johnson's dictionary, things really haven't changed so much. Whereas 250 years before Johnson it was dogged by non-standardisation. In the middle ages it was a series of dialects.

"I'm probably slower to accept that there is a massive change on the way, because I'm aware that there has been a lot of stability over the last few centuries. I don't think a completely new form of language is going to come out of the technological changes we're seeing now. I'd be very surprised if it did. "

Ever since the OED was founded, in the mid-nineteenth century, English has been the language of the world, a notion that only recently has been under threat - at least through peaceful means. Whether it outlasts the transferring of power and wealth to the east, is not simply a socio-economic matter.

"In the 80, my predecessor Bob Burchfield, gave lectures where he claimed that in 200 years time, British and American English would be mutually incomprehensible. Now the question is more whether in 200 years time whether English will be of any significance on the world stage at all, whether it will have been overtaken by Chinese, or Indian. I can't tell where things are going to go, but there are difficulties with the Chinese and Indian languages becoming the principle language, because people from outside those areas will have to learn new alphabets. It would be quite a complicated shift. But perhaps the Chinese and Indian languages will shift themselves, in such a way that makes them more easy to accommodate. I would be suspicious of the possibility at the moment, but things change so quick that who's to say in 50 years things won't be very different."

On Mr Simpson's watch the OED is now updated every three months, far more regularly than before, and over 60,000 new words and definitions have been added. On his desk is a stack of A4, 107 pages thick, with a post-it note on the front on which the word 'EYE' is written. "Yes, these are all the definitions for eye. I've been looking at eye-shadow recently," he says. "I've found early uses of the term on databases for American local newspapers. Eye-wash. A wash or lotion from the eye, from the 19th century. Now we've found examples back to the 18th century. And it also means nonsense, which comes from the late nineteenth century. But we've just found an example from The Times, in 1872, of that usage, so that'll be in the next edition."

The work is essentially the same in nature to when its first editor Sir James Murray, began in 1879, except there is more emailing and less letter-writing. But the 21st century dictionary is a subtly but noticeably different undertaking.

"When I started writing in the 1970s we were aware that our target audience was Oxford dons, the sort of people who would have access to and be interested in this 20 volume thing. Now it's online we're conscious that its accessible to a much wider range of people. We don't want to lower the quality of the analysis that we do, but we do want to make it more open and more accessible to a broader range of people."

The opportunity to link too, is a landmark shift. In a computerised world, "You could link through to the OED in poems, for example. Take a word like darkling. A pupil comes across that word in a poem, and if he can link through to the OED entry for it, it can tell you something about the resonance of that word for the poet - what the word meant when he or she wrote it. That's far more effective, if you come across a word that you don't understand, than you putting your hand up and your teacher saying 'oh it means this.'.

Simpson refuses to be drawn on his favourite words, regarding them as "objects of scientific study rather than cosy little things", explaining his interest is more in "what image you can draw of a word, in terms of what compounds and derivatives it has, in examples from the past." One example is "civil" and "uncivil". "Why should civil have such such a different profile to uncivil. Civil has all sorts of meanings. Uncivil is used in a much narrower context."

The dawning of the on-line age has, if anything, made it harder for new words to be included. Once, "five references over five years" was enough, but now with Google, that means every spelling mistake imaginable would be worthy of inclusion. If say, a new word went rival, as the imaginative and newly coined insult, cockhat, did on Twitter, after it was used in a rather rude email, it would now need "to be used in a variety of sources, hundreds of thousands of times, before I would even get out of bed to look at it."