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

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."

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game