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Same words, new meanings. What’s really changed in the last 65 years?

OALD CoverJudith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Here she looks back at how the meaning of some words has changed over the history of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

The latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is still fresh and new but this year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication by Oxford University Press of its esteemed forerunner, A.S. Hornby’s Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. So it may be a good time to undertake some lexico-archaeology and look at the changes that have occurred over the 8 editions of the dictionary.

There are several factors influencing these changes. Dictionary users, their knowledge, their learning styles and their expectations are very different now from then ; lexicographic techniques have evolved, with the corpus revolution of the 1980s and 1990s being possibly the most significant development in these 65 years; and, of course, the language has moved on. New words are coined, new meanings attached to old words, and even when the strict meaning remains the same, words are used differently. For instance, Hornby already used the word ‘problem’ to define issue in the first edition, but the examples in the current edition, such as If you have any issues, please call this number, reflect a 21st Century form of expression.

This text is a blog post. The word post has many senses and uses (the current edition lists ten meanings for the noun and nine for the verb) and this sense of ‘a piece of writing that forms part of a blog’ is the latest addition. Just a few more examples of the ‘new meanings for old words’ phenomenon are tag = a symbol or name used by a graffiti artist, hybrid = a car using two different types of power, and the informal use of the adjective random.

As well as new senses we see shifts in frequency, with earlier uses becoming more formal (e.g. attitude, whose original first sense of ‘position of the body’ is now labelled formal and demoted to last sense, ousted by the newer sense of ‘confident, sometimes aggressive behaviour’); meanings dropping out of the language (tag as a metal tip on a shoelace); usage becoming more restricted; words crossing the part-of-speech boundary (the noun-generated verbs text as in SMS messages and trend as in be trending on Twitter); literal or concrete meanings becoming figurative or abstract; and changes of register and region, typically, American English terms becoming part of British English and informal words becoming standard.

Let’s look at a single entry – the noun wrap. This is a good example of an old word being used for new things. In the 1stedition, it is described as usually plural and defined solely as an ‘outer garment or covering, e.g. a shawl, scarf, fur, cloak or rug’. By the 3rd edition the word has acquired a ‘trade use’ with the phrases keep sth under wraps and take off the wraps. Hornby obviously sees these as commercial terms, but now the idiom under wraps is widely used in informal language.

The 5th edition redefines the garment sense as ‘a loose scarf or shawl’ and includes paper/plastic wrap. The sense of the end of filming – That’s/It’s a wrap – is in the 6th edition, and the current edition still gives the garment sense first, but now it’s even more specific – ‘a piece of cloth that a woman wears around her shoulders’. Bubble wrap sits alongside gift wrap in the paper/plastic sense, and is followed by the food sense, originally from the US, of tortilla wrap. Do a Google image search and you will see which one everyone’s talking about – or wanting you to buy! Will future editions of the dictionary see the clothing sense lose importance (it is already marked old-fashioned in the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary) and new senses appear, for example the seaweed wrap that has nothing to do with either clothing or food?

All words in the dictionary have their own stories – and histories: the noun wrap has been in the language since the 15th Century and many of the other words mentioned here have been around even longer than that. New phenomena, tangible or conceptual, appear and lead to the creation of new words like blog or else attach themselves to existing words like tweet. Listen out for yourselves and see how many genuinely new words you hear compared to venerable old words clad in new meanings.


“I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

Woman shrugging her shouldersRon Martinez has been a TESOL practitioner for over 20 years, with extensive and diverse experience as a teacher, trainer of teachers, materials developer, and academic researcher. In this post, he draws parallels between remembering people’s names and remembering foreign language vocabulary.

I recently had back surgery, which forced me to miss the first three months of this semester at the university where I teach on an MA TESOL program. Right before I was to finally return to duty, I was invited to a special dinner that would be attended by faculty and students from the school. When I got to the restaurant, a number of former students approached me – most of whom I had not seen for over four months – and I found myself doing a lot of “Hi!  It’s… you!” and “Hi… guy!” I, of course, recognized their faces, but I couldn’t remember many of their names. (And I’m sure they could tell!)

And then there was today. I returned to campus for my first day back, and I ran into a person who works in our English Department office – we’ll call her “Linda.” Linda smiled and waved, but I didn’t recognize her. “Out of context, right?” she said, kindly trying to assuage my embarrassment. And then I realized who it was. And Linda was right: I had never seen her anywhere outside that office, and that coupled with the extended time off also threw me off. (But at least I remembered her name.)

I realized that there are some parallels to be drawn between those rather awkward experiences and memory for vocabulary:

  • we tend to forget names, not faces; with vocabulary, we tend to forget the form of a word, not the concept;
  • even after repeated contact over months with people, it’s possible to forget their names after a while if you don’t interact with them somehow;  with vocabulary, the same will happen if you don’t refresh newish lexis on occasion;
  • when you only see people in a certain context, you might not immediately recognize them in other contexts; with vocabulary, you’re less likely to readily retrieve a lexical item from memory that’s only been encountered in one context/genre (e.g. in a coursebook) when meeting that same item in a different context/genre.

All of the above are echoed in one way or another in language acquisition theory. Vocabulary expert Paul Nation, for example, believes keys to vocabulary staying remembered include noticing the word in context, retrieving the meaning of that word from memory, and, ideally, using the word (what he calls “generative use”). So perhaps I was able to remember Linda’s name more easily than my former students’ simply because I’d used her name before. But there’s probably more to it that that. On reflection, I’d not only said her name when speaking to her, but I’d also seen her name in my inbox just about every other day during the semester in her email announcements to faculty. Another authority on vocabulary, Robert Waring, has shown in different studies that a newly-learned word that is met only once in a text will stay remembered for just so long. It needs to be encountered a number of times in order to reach long-term memory.

But just how many times is “a number of times”? It’s not really a hard-and-fast science, but what the research shows is that encountering or even repeating a word over and over again in a short period of time (for example, in just one class) really is an investment with diminishing returns. (Think of trying to do too many “reps” of one exercise at the gym.)  What studies show is that it’s encountering and/or using vocabulary again and again (and having to remember what that vocabulary means) over a long period of time, in various contexts, that helps ensure that a lexical item does not just fade away.

Indeed, as I learned the hard way today with Linda, the “various contexts” part seems to be really important. Michael Hoey has hypothesized that when we come across a word or phrase, we not only notice and retrieve its meaning as Nation would assert, but on each encounter we also retain some information about where that word was found (e.g. its genre), the context in which it was met, the co-text (words before and after the word), and even where in the discourse it was (e.g. the introduction, the body, or the conclusion). This is the theory of “lexical priming,” which suggests that the real key to gaining vocabulary “depth” of knowledge (e.g. collocation) is meeting a word in various contexts over time.

So, maybe if I had kept in touch with some of those students  – even just an email or two – while I was convalescing, remembering their names wouldn’t have been so elusive. And that might explain why I didn’t forget the names of fellow faculty at that same dinner, with whom I of course have had longer and more regular contact in varied contexts. But it wouldn’t explain it fully.

You see, I did not forget all my former students’ names at that dinner. There was one, for example – let’s call him “James” – whose name I remembered right away. What was different about James?

Unlike most of the students in James’s class, I had had contact with him outside of class as well. For example, last semester after a special seminar, snacks and drinks were served and we spoke for several minutes and we realized that we actually had some mutual friends. It is also worth noting that James was exceptional among his classmates, and regularly sent me emails asking questions and asking for suggestions on papers and so on. He even sent me a “get well” email while I was out with the back injury. Moreover, on most if not all those diverse occasions, I actually said (or wrote) his name.

Put another way, it was the combination of the relative frequency, variety and depth (i.e. non-superficiality) of my interaction with James, in addition to also using his name in diverse contexts, that made remembering “James” a lot easier. This concept is also echoed in the literature on vocabulary retention, encapsulated in Norbert Schmitt’s notion of “engagement,” the idea that the deeper the personal and cognitive involvement a learner has with lexis, the better.

So what might all this mean for you, the teacher? Get students to treat vocabulary as they would their friends!  People don’t forget their friends’ names because they see them often, or at least think of them often. Moreover, usually your friends are involved in a network of friends of some kind, and it’s harder to forget a friend’s name when her/his name is being mentioned (or gossiped about) over coffee every so often. And people like to do stuff with their friends, and not the same stuff all the time. You build memories, deep and meaningful memories with those friends, and maybe their names will therefore become engraved in your memory for the rest of your life.

Well, OK, I know that students will not want to start adding lexical items as Facebook pals or anything, but what matters is that students experience (at least) the noticing and retrieval that Nation suggests, repeatedly over a period of time as Waring has recommended, and with the engagement that Schmitt advocates. But what about the variety of contexts?

There’s only so much we can do in class. The variety of contexts and co-texts that Hoey says are necessary for lexical priming to have a positive effect on depth of vocabulary knowledge really are not likely to be had in class alone, which means investing in learning out of class, too. Naturally, a lot depends on students’ motivation, and how we get students motivated…  Well, that’s something for another blog entry, I’m afraid. There are some great authorities on the subject you can read, though. Now, if I could just remember their names…