Happy Birthday, Oxford English Dictionary

Happy Birthday, Oxford English Dictionary

You’re 132 years old today, and still in tune with the changing English language. You chose ’emoji’ as the 2015 word of the year out of all the new words that entered the OED last year.

When the editors first started work in 1879 on the project to compile a comprehensive new dictionary for the English language they envisaged it would run to 6,400-pages, divided into four volumes. But they had underestimated the size of their task, because after five years’ work of sifting words they had only got as far as ‘ant’.

So they had to have a rethink. They decided to turn it into what today we would call a part-work. The dictionary was therefore issued in alphabetical instalments – the first one was published on 1 February 1884 and the last came out in 1928 – that’s 44 years from start to finish.

But the dictionary was trendsetting for another reason: it used crowdsourcing. In 1879, the principal editor, James Murray, put out an appeal for people to send in extracts from books and their suggestions for words to be listed in the dictionary. From that beginning the OED has grown to listing 600,000 words today.

But have you ever wondered about the origin of words? If you’re running a small enterprise you’ll be interested to know that term ‘entrepreneur’ began life in the early 19th-century. It was used to denote the director of a musical institution.  You’ll recognise that being an entrepreneur certainly means orchestrating multiple tasks.

And maybe you’ll not be surprised that ‘business’ is derived from the Old English word ‘bisignis’, meaning ‘anxiety’; another meaning is being perpetually busy, ie busy-ness.

English has become a global language. This is not only because it is spoken around the world but also because it has adopted words from other languages. It’s not just a case of American or Australian English, but a language rich with words from a host of cultures.

Maybe you came into work today wearing your favourite anorak (a word from Greenland) to shield you against the rain and cold. Perhaps you’ll be popping out to get some sushi (Japan) from the deli (Germany) at lunchtime. Or maybe you’re daydreaming at your desk about a summer holiday lounging on a beach in your bikini (Marshall Islands).  Think about it, and you’ll see that the language you’re using is truly international.

Thanks to social media and the speed of technology advances, new words, abbreviations and phrases are entering the language all the time. Whereas print dictionaries take time to produce, OED online tracks the changes regularly recording new words and keeping in touch with current language. Think ‘bitcoin’, ‘click and collect’, ‘phablet’, ‘selfie’, ‘srsly’.

So, have a bit of fun. Take the OED Timeline Challenge to see if you can tell when popular words were first entered the English language.

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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…

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