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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.


Words for World events: what’s on the A(-Z)-list?

Collection of World flagsJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at some of the World events that prompted the most searched-for words on OALD8.com in 2012.

2012 was quite a year – the Olympics and the Jubilee in the UK, freak weather and political turmoil almost everywhere, not to mention the predicted end of the world.

But what impact did these things have on the ELT community? One way of gaining an insight into what was on the minds of learners and teachers of English around the world is by analysing which words were most frequently looked up each month on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary website.

Unsurprisingly, the usual round of seasonal festivals accounts for many items on the list, with Pancake Day and Mardi Gras in February, bonfires and Memorial Day in November and bauble, poinsettia and the rest of the festive lexicon in December. But there are numerous other words more specific to local and world events. So what were some of the events that caught our interest in 2012?

In January came news that UK university applications had fallen as tuition fees rose, and many people turned to the dictionary to check what this term meant. January and February also saw a surge of interest in astronomy with dwarf planet and plutoid zooming into view. Back on our own planet, President Obama went to Korea in March and visited the demilitarized zone, with the result that demilitarize was one of the month’s favourites.

Tour de France riders

Image courtesy of hyku on Flickr.

In April a few hundred of you were interested in debunking – maybe fans of the economist Steve Keen, whose book Debunking Economics seeks to expose the failings of economic theory. Possible evidence of this failure is the on-going financial crisis in the Eurozone, which led to talk in May of Greece ditching the euro and bringing back the drachma. The summer of sport took off with the Tour de France and the peloton was on everyone’s lips and keyboards in both June and July. Sadly, when the sun comes out, so too do the litter louts, who made it into the news and dictionary statistics in June.

Further summery activities in July led word-watchers to turn to the website when they heard of people tiptoeing through the tide pools and throwing summer cookouts; both American English terms. A chilling contrast to this summer fun came with the Aurora shooting in Colorado, where the suspect had planted sophisticated booby traps in his apartment. Back to sport, and July and August saw the London Olympics generate a spike in sports-related searches, including heptathlon, velodrome and tae kwon do. The Olympic and Paralympic games were followed in September by a return to political fun and games in London with the former Chief Whip arguing with the police: the word pleb may or may not have been traded as an insult but, along with the related form plebs, it was the subject of many perfectly polite dictionary queries.

Mayan Apocalypse

Image courtesy of Kačičky.com.

In the US the presidential campaign meant that political terminology was the order of the day with swing state and electoral college in October and November. And not for the first time, an extramarital affair led to the resignation of a major public figure, in this case the head of the CIA. The December statistics are overflowing with Christmas-related terminology but that non-event supposedly foretold by the Mayans inspired numerous people to look up apocalypse and doomsday.

Luckily, rather than the end of the world, the month of December merely signalled another end to a year. So who knows what the top words of 2013 will be? Surely, that’s something else it would be foolish to try to predict…

Judith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Before this she was a language teacher and translator from Spanish and Catalan into English.

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