What is the OED and why do we want Philippine English to be in it?

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Last weekend I went to the Oxford University Press bookshop on Oxford’s High Street for the first time. The first thing I saw as I entered the shop was the dictionary section, which was right by the door on the left-hand side. I’d never seen so many Oxford dictionaries together in one place, and at that moment I was struck by the sheer number of them. Most of them had the distinctive blue color scheme, but they came in all shapes and sizes and catered for a wide variety of needs: there were huge hardbound volumes as well as handy paperback editions; there were shorter, concise, compact, little, mini, pocket versions; there were dictionaries for children, for students, for language learners; there were thesauri, dictionaries of usage, dictionaries of regional varieties, terminological dictionaries on a huge range of subjects; there were bilingual dictionaries for languages from Italian and Russian to Chinese and Swahili.

But high up on a top shelf were all twenty handsome, hardbound volumes of the latest print edition of the mother of them all, the Oxford English Dictionary, which everybody calls by its acronym, OED.

So what is the OED? What makes it different from all the other dictionaries published by OUP? And what’s so special about it that I’m dedicating years of my life to studying how Philippine English is represented in it, and trying to get more Philippine words and senses into it?

The main difference between the OED and most other Oxford dictionaries is that it is a historical dictionary, meaning that it is not only concerned with English as it is written and spoken today, but rather with the whole history of the language. This also means that unlike dictionaries of current English, the OED includes all core words and meanings in English, even those that are rare, archaic, historical, obsolete and technical. Meanings are listed in chronological order, from the earliest evidence of usage to the most recent. Once a word gets into the OED, it cannot be taken out: it becomes part of the historical record of the language. This makes the OED the ideal resource for studying the origin and development of thousands of English words.

A feature that sets the OED apart from the dictionaries that came before it is that it is based on evidence of actual usage. The 600,000 words in the dictionary are illustrated by around three million quotations taken from a wide variety of sources, from classic literature to newspapers, magazines and cookery books. Most of this massive amount of evidence were contributions from an enthusiastic public, volunteer readers who sent to Oxford masses and masses of quotation slips with interesting examples of how words are used.

Given the scope of its ambition, it is not at all surprising that the first edition of the OED took decades to complete. The dictionary was first conceived in the 1850s, years before our national hero, Jose Rizal, was born. It was the Victorian era in England; in the Philippines, we were still under Spanish rule. Spanish was then the language of prestige, and Filipinos of the period had no idea that in a few decades’ time we would be speaking and writing another European language, one that would be brought to our shores by a nascent world power in the Americas. It wasn’t until 1884 when the first fascicle, or installment, of the OED (then known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles), saw print. In 1898, the year the Philippines declared independence from Spain, OUP released two fascicles of the dictionary, containing words in the range Franklaw-germanizing, and the range H-hod. Thirty more years later, in 1928, the complete first edition was finally published. George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, was on the throne in England; in the Philippines, we were under the authority of the US Bureau of Insular Affairs, and Filipino authors such as Paz Marquez Benitez and Jose Garcia Villa had just begun writing literary works in English.

Work on the OED did not cease with the completion of the first edition. In the decades that followed, supplements and additions to the dictionary were produced. The second edition of the OED, whose set of twenty volumes I so admired at the OUP bookshop, was released in 1989. It was the early years of the first Aquino administration, and I was five years old.

Now in its third edition, the OED continues to evolve and change, just like the language that it chronicles. Just as English is a living language, the OED is a living dictionary, one that is always ready to embrace the opportunities offered by modern technology. The digitalization of the OED began in the 1980s, culminating with the release of the OED CD-ROM in 1992, and finally, with the pioneering launch of OED Online in 2000. And it is not just the dictionary’s method of delivery that is keeping up with the changing times. The OED is currently undergoing its first root and branch revision since it was first published, and the results of this huge scholarly endeavor, the biggest humanities project in the world, is made available every quarter in OED Online. And as the OED updates its existing entries, it continues to add an endless stream of new words and senses.

There is no doubt that the OED is a monumental work of scholarship. But why exactly is it important for Philippine English to be a part of it? One reason is that for the OED to remain current and relevant, it has to acknowledge the changes that the English-speaking world has undergone since the OED was first proposed in the 1850s. English has gone beyond the countries where it is spoken as the sole native language, and has spread to many different parts of the globe where it is used for intra- and international communication along with a number of other local languages. As a dictionary that considers itself to be the ultimate historical record of the English language, the OED needs to, and is keen to, include more and more words from these World Englishes. Philippine English is just one of these vibrant new varieties of the language that make English a truly global tongue.

Another reason is that the addition of Philippine vocabulary items to such an esteemed lexicographical work such as the OED can aid in the legitimization of Philippine English as a variety in its own right. The inclusion of Philippine English words in the OED is an acknowledgment that this particular variety is as worthy of serious linguistic scholarship as older, more established varieties such as British and American English. Becoming part of the OED is a recognition of the role that Philippine English plays in the evolution of the language. Such recognition may also lead to the realization among Filipinos that the liberties that we take with English are not aberrations, but rather linguistic innovations that reflect our own cultural experience and contribute to the richness and diversity of English.

One thought on “What is the OED and why do we want Philippine English to be in it?

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