Inside the OED.

Andrew Dickson writes for the Grauniad about everybody’s favorite dictionary (every history-minded English-speaker’s, that is), the OED:

In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.

In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”. […]

Ninety years after the first edition appeared, the OED – a distant, far bulkier descendant of Johnson’s Dictionary – is currently embarked on a third edition, a goliath project that involves overhauling every entry (many of which have not been touched since the late-Victorian era) and adding at least some of those 30,000 missing words, as well as making the dictionary into a fully digital resource. This was originally meant to be completed in 2000, then 2005, then 2010. Since then, OUP has quietly dropped mentions of a date. How far had they got, I asked Proffitt. “About 48%,” he replied.

The dictionary retains a quiet pride in the lexical lengths to which it will – indeed, must – go. Some time in the late 1980s, Proffitt’s predecessor as chief editor, John Simpson, asked the poet Benjamin Zephaniah about the origins of the noun “skanking”. Zephaniah decided that the only way to explain was to come to OED headquarters and do a private, one-on-one performance. Skanking duly went in, defined as “a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist, and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat”.

The tale touches something profound: in capturing a word, a sliver of lived experience can be observed and defined. If only you were able to catch all the words, perhaps you could define existence.

There’s a lot of potted history of dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, none of which will be a surprise to most LH readers, but there are some nice tidbits:

Among other eccentricities, Murray had taken against “marzipan”, preferring to spell it “marchpane”, and decreed that the adjective “African” should not be included, on the basis that it was not really a word. “American”, however, was, for reasons that reveal much about the dictionary’s lofty Anglocentric worldview.

There is also sobering news:

Adding to the challenge is a story that has become wearily familiar: while more people are consulting dictionary-like resources than ever, almost no one wants to shell out. Sales of hard-copy dictionaries have collapsed, far more calamitously than in other sectors. (OUP refused to give me figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. “I don’t think you’ll get any publisher to fess up about this,” Michael Rundell told me.)

And optimism:

Despite his pessimism about the industry, he talked with real excitement about a project he was about to join, working with experts from the Goldfield Aboriginal Language Centre on indigenous Australian languages, scantily covered by lexicographers. “Dictionaries can make a genuine difference,” he said. “They give power to languages that might have had very little power in the past; they can help preserve and share it. I really believe that.”

And it ends with a shocker: an antedate of “mansplain”! (Thanks, Trevor and Eric.)


  1. I used to see the word ‘marchpane’ very occasionally, and was always baffled. In my family — of lowly origins, admittedly — we spelled it ‘marzipan’ and said it the same way. I wonder where Murray got that peculiar word from, and what he found objectionable about marzipan.

  2. Romeo and Juliet?

  3. Brideshead Revisited. Lord Marchpane

  4. It’s true that A Table alphabeticall has few words in W, but not none at all (remembering that it was intended to define only “hard English words”): viz. warish, waimenting, welde, walter, weane, wene, welken, whilke, wend, wote, wonne, woofe, wimple, wist, wood, wreke, respectively defined as ‘ease, deliver’, ‘lamentation’, ‘move’, ‘wallow’, ‘refraine one from any thing’, ‘thinke’, ‘skie’, ‘which’, ‘goe’, ‘know’, ‘dwell’, ‘the threed in weaving which goeth acrosse’, ‘hoode, muffler’, ‘knowne’, ‘madde’, ‘revenge’. There would be no point, from Cawdrey’s viewpoint, in including words like want, we, why, will, would.

    Update: Marchpane first landed in 1513, in the sense of a dessert made with marzipan, and in 1556 in the sense of marzipan itself. It comes from Italian or German, but which is not known.

  5. Also, wasn’t Henry Bradley the editor of Mandragora — Matter?

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    That “If only you were able to catch all the words” bit put me in mind of the peroration of the children’s book The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read, viz. (context is that the title character has finally broken down and asked his good wife to help him become literate):

    First the old man learned to read the word “spaghetti.”
    Next he learned to read the word “milk.”
    Then he learned to read the words for everything in the big shop.
    And then he learned to read the words for everything in the world.

  7. Also, the Graun maintains its traditions by spelling Trench’s middle name (his mother’s maiden name) once as “Chenevix” and once as “Chevenix”; the former is correct.

    Trench anecdote:

    He once went back to pay a visit to his successor [as Archbishop of Dublin in the Church of Ireland], Lord Plunket. Finding himself back again in his old palace, sitting at his old dinner-table, and gazing across it at his wife, he lapsed in memory to the days when he was master of the house, and gently remarked to Mrs Trench, “I am afraid, my love, that we must put this cook down among our failures.”

    These Plunkets should not be confused with the Plunketts, the family of the Lords Dunsany, whose peerage is some 400 years older.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    One click away:

    There is another Sett of Men who have contributed very must to the spoiling of the English Tongue; I mean the Poets, from the Time of the Restoration. These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables; yet, to same Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure: They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable: And their Taste in time became so depraved, that what was a first a Poetical Licence, not to be justified, they made their Choice, alledging, that the Words pronounced at length, sounded faint and languid. This was a Pretence to take up the same Custom in Prose; so that most of the Books we see now a-days, are full of those Manglings and Abbreviations. Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg’d, Disturb’d, Rebuk’t, Fledg’d, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.


    My LORD,
    Your LORDSHIP’s
    most Obedient, most Obliged,
    and most Humble Servant,

    J. SWIFT.

    Feb. 22.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I just escaped having a later Chenevix Trench as my housemaster (he left at the same time as I arrived). His sadistic character wasn’t revealed to the general public until much later, but was well known to all the boys who had known him. More to the point, it was only fairly recently that I realized that it was Chenevix, not Chevenix.

  10. You may have been referring to this already with your ‘potted history’ comment, but the ‘African’ vs ‘American’ inclusion problem was (of course) not at all on the basis that ‘African’ was ‘not really a word’ whereas ‘American’ was: the dictionary was in its earliest stages and when the entries in Af- were being written they’d decided on a strict rule against including proper nouns, including their derivative adjectives. (‘No proper nouns’ continues to apply in most British dictionaries today.)

    Then they got to Am-, and American, and found words like ‘Americanism’, ‘Americanize’, ‘Americanized’, which they should certainly include but it since they all had ‘American-’ as their root, it was obvious that they’d gone too far previously — if they omitted ‘American’ as they had ‘African’, they wouldn’t have any entry to cross-reference in the etymologies of all these other derived words. So they included it, but by then the Af- section was already set into type and they couldn’t go back and add ‘African’ without a huge expense for producing new printing plates.

    For that reason, all future sections of the dictionary did include proper adjectives, and the omission of ‘African’ was finally corrected with the supplement of 1933.

  11. His Wikipedia article has a distinctly weird tone, being relentlessly positive about even the most negative events, and over-praising the obvious. A Hattic-relevant quotation: “In Bombay, he joined the 22nd Mountain (Indian Artillery) Regiment, and took charge of an artillery battery. His linguistic skills were immensely valuable in overcoming poor communications within the unit (he mastered the basics of Urdu to make it possible for the officers to communicate with their men), though the culturally diverse nature of the unit, half Muslim and half Sikh but with British officers and signallers, continued to cause problems.” What, he translated all the orders from officers to men personally?

  12. His Wikipedia article has a distinctly weird tone, being relentlessly positive about even the most negative events, and over-praising the obvious.

    If you look at the Talk page, it would seem that Demiurge1000 has a vested interest in this article and is suppressing negative information. No idea if there’s a real-world connection or just an abstract admiration.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    His Wikipedia article has a distinctly weird tone, being relentlessly positive about even the most negative events, and over-praising the obvious.

    Yes, I thought that too, but at least the most negative aspects were not censored out of existence. The following statement on the Talk page seems disingenuous:

    We also must remember that corporal punishment was common in private schools at the time and still happened in some Scottish state schools in the 1970s.

    What it says is true enough, but it overlooks the essential point that Anthony Chenevix Trench was a far outlier even by the standards of the 1950s. Yes, most boys at that time accepted the reality of corporal punishment, and many regarded it as a Good Thing. However, Chenevix Trench went far beyond what was regarded as normal. Everyone who had known him, and many, like me, who hadn’t, were aware of his enthusiasm for the cane.

    His successor as housemaster was Michael Charlesworth, who regarded him as a friend, as he made it clear in his book Behind the Headlines, never used the cane at all (to my knowledge) but refrained from expressing his opinion about it. If he had referred to it he would would probably have brushed it aside with a reminder of the terrible war Trench had had on the Burma Railway (which was true enough).

    In about 1995 I went to a commemoration of Charlesworth’s career, at which one of the invited speakers made a reference to “that little sadist Trench”. Everyone knew what he meant.

    More recently, I learned that one of my friends, ten years younger than me, had been at Bradfield, but too late to have known Trench as headmaster, who’d moved on to greater things at Eton. In writing to him I said “so you missed the reign of terror”: again, I didn’t need to explain what I meant.

    I have an idea that frequent commenter A. J. P. Crown (I think his current name is Squiffy-Marie von Bladet) was at Eton, but probably not when Trench was there.

  14. I hasten to inform you that frequent commenter A. J. P. Crown, who lives in Norway and posts pictures of dogs and snowy nature (formerly at his blog, now — like everybody else — at Facebook), is a very different frequent commenter from frequent commenter Squiffy-Marie “Des” von Bladet, who not only lives in Dutchland but is now officially Dutch and blogs at Diaryland, a life-choice so perverse as to inspire reluctant admiration.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Ah. I have been labouring under a delusion, maybe more than one delusion.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    This is interesting. Is it possible to labour under a single delusion? If I believe the moon is made of cheese, that is one delusion, but I also have to harbour another delusion: that cheese is something the moon could be made of.

  17. More will be lost than gained with revision. So it always goes.

    An old version said that only lunatics and madrigal singers pronounced the “t” in “often.”

    A valuable insight now disappeared like all that is good.

  18. yet another David says:

    “… she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her …”

    If she asked him for an explanation, is it really mansplaining? I thought mansplanations were necessarily unsolicited (and generally condescending).

  19. Trune, I think that’s trivially true: by the same token, if you think the moon is made of green cheese, then you think non-green-cheese things are non-moons. But I argue that all of these count as a single delusion.

  20. If she asked him for an explanation, is it really mansplaining?

    Well, I suspect the request was sarcastic (“Oh, you big smart manly man, could you explain it to silly widdle me?”), but also it was very early days for that useful term, and the meaning may not have settled down yet.

  21. If you believe one statement that is false, there are automatically an infinite number of other false statements that are implied by it. You must believe those too, at least if you take the time to think things through. If you disbelieve one or more of them, then you must believe in something contradictory; exploding that with logic, you ought to believe every statement.

  22. But of course belief doesn’t work that way: it is an opaque context. I believe that there is either life on Jupiter or there isn’t, but I do not believe there is, and I do not believe there isn’t.

  23. @Brett: In fact, a false statement implies any statement, true or false.

  24. Which was Brett’s conclusion: “you ought to believe every statement.”

  25. mansplain

    Finally I learned what the word actually means.

    Of course, I immediately thought of several other terms on this pattern.

    For example

    lingsplain – (of a linguist) explain linguistics to someone, typically a non-linguist, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing

  26. But that’s the reverse of the “mansplain” pattern; the whole point is that the man is not an expert and is “explaining” something to a woman who knows more about it than he does.

  27. OK, fixed!

    lingsplain – (of a non-linguist) explain linguistics to someone, typically a linguist, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing

  28. Now you’ve got it!

  29. Trond Engen says:

    I’d define X-splaining as “unwarranted explanation given from an unrecognized feeling of superiority based on structural but essentially undeserved power. The element X identifies the reason for the feeling of superiority”. Since linguists have very little power, there’s hard to find a situation where lingsplaining would work. But physsplaining works, since physicists explaining everybody else how they should conduct their science is a recognized thing.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    I could reformulate it as

    X-splaining n. From the godgiven position of X-ness explaining something trivial to somebody else.

    Other examples: Dadsplaining, sure. Whitesplaining. Ouch. Richsplaining or wealthsplaining doesn’t need any definition, I think. Jocksplaining? Brainsplaining?

    And also when the source of superiority is entirely temporary or even illusory. Drunksplaining.

  31. My favorite example, heard after a lengthy explanation of why a third party’s call for the end of the state of Israel had to be interpreted ironically and was therefore not antisemitic: “Thanks for gentilesplaining that for me.”

  32. formerly at his blog, now — like everybody else — at Facebook

    Is this true? Has Facebook really hoovered up everything that is good and vital into its maw?

  33. Facebook and Twitter between them; yes, I fear so. But I shall never surrender!

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    That “unrecognized feeling of superiority based on structural but essentially undeserved power” can start pretty young. My son (age three) recently asked his oldest sister (age sixteen, and currently enrolled in AP Physics) if she knew what a “pulley” was. Without waiting for her answer (which would have been that she did know) he launched into an enthusiastic and detailed explanation. OTOH his enthusiastic and detailed explanations of the finer points of truck-and-construction-equipment taxonomy to various adult female houseguests have in fact conveyed information they did not in fact already know (although perhaps there were good reasons they had previously remained rationally ignorant of that particular taxonomy at that level of detail).

  35. Facebook is just a crappy and proprietary copy of the Web itself. I will never use it. Twitter is another matter: it is a blogging platform suitable for short blog posts, and I do use it. Specifically, I use it as a commonplace book, where I write down quotations that I like and wish to share with others. Follow me at Woldemar_Avalon, anyone who would like to read them.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Whitesplaining. Ouch.

    Common enough that it’s a search suggestion by Google.

    Facebook and Twitter between them; yes, I fear so.

    Almost – the rest is on Tumblr, where it’s hard to follow a discussion, because the only way to comment on a post there is to republish it. That’s mostly fine just as long as the comment thread doesn’t bifurcate…

  37. Tumblr is an echo chamber of the worst possible kind.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    Common enough that it’s a search suggestion by Google.

    Obviously useful. When I wrote the comment I thought I made up all the examples myself, but It’s very likely that I just forgot having seen some.

    Since there’s a dismissal of authority built into the frame by definition, you could use it to dismiss any advice or opinion, warranted or not: psysplaining, docsplaining, medsplaining, profsplaining. I don’t think these would work as freestanding words with a generally agreed lexical meaning, but they could well be used by someone who doesn’t like the advice.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    I stayed out of Facebook for years, but I ended up ending up there. I think it’s nice for postcards and friendly exchange of goofyness. I also have come to appreciate it as a way to be alerted to news, which I then go to the websites to read, or to alert people to something interesting I’ve read myself. It may well be that Twitter would be a better channel for all those things, but I’m not there. I’ve had some really interesting exchanges on Facebook too — most recently with Dmitry Pruss on Siberian horse genomes and Sejma-Turbino skiing — but those would always have been even better on a blog.

  40. Yeah, I’m fine with Facebook as a way to keep up with people — I use it that way myself. It’s also good for random thoughts that aren’t substantial enough for a blog post. But as a platform for what used to naturally go into blogs, it’s terrible. I have no idea why people have deserted perfectly good blogs to make ephemeral remarks there.

  41. Whitesplaining, as I have seen it, goes an extra step in obnoxiousness beyond mansplaining. Mansplainers’ assumed superiority can cover any subject. Whitesplainers specifically trivialize their interlocutors’ knowledge which comes from being non-white. The classic is a white American explaining to a black American that racial discrimination no longer exists.

    On another tack, I’d love to know whether the mainsplainer’s certainty in himself is tempered in languages with obligatory evidentiality.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    Or the opposite? There must be a socio-linguistic component to evidentiality. If you assume superiority, you’ll profess with greater certainty and use a stronger evidential marker. That goes a long way towards -splaining in itself.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    Another definition:

    -splaining noun-building morpheme “exerting explanatory power”; X-splaining “from the position of being X, exerting explanatory power over a non-X”.

  44. Evidential marking systems, as far as I know, don’t have scalar gradations of certainty. A more typical system would require you to mark hearsay vs. personally acquired knowledge.

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Yes. I could have said “an evidential marker indicating stronger familiarity”.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: My son (age three) recently asked his oldest sister (age sixteen, and currently enrolled in AP Physics) if she knew what a “pulley” was

    Children that age are notorious splainers, because they cannot identify with other people’s minds and therefore don’t realize not only how other people might feel but also what they might know. This child seems to have been so delighted by his new discovery that he felt compelled to announce it to another person, practically an adult, who might long have known of the technical aspects.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    Y: Evidential marking systems, as far as I know, don’t have scalar gradations of certainty. A more typical system would require you to mark hearsay vs. personally acquired knowledge

    This basic distinction is quite common, but there are often more. In the Nisqa’a language of British Columbia, if you indicate you are speaking from personal knowledge but are not believed, you can reply using a stronger evidential postclitic meaning something like “Believe it or not, it is actually true!”

  48. Children that age are notorious splainers, because they cannot identify with other people’s minds and therefore don’t realize not only how other people might feel but also what they might know.

    I’m still like that, because I genuinely don’t know out of my vast stock of mental acquisitions which items are common knowledge and which are not. When chatting online (at least in certain places) I can take it for granted that my interlocutor will google if they don’t understand my allusions, but not in face-to-face conversation.


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