Thursday, 17 April 2008

Computer to love, heaven to hell

These cryptic and intriguing words are part of the subject line of an email I have just received. What can the email be about?

It is in fact about the latest quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, which focuses on the revision of key words rather than on a specific alphabetical range. By key words they mean important English words whose meanings or application have developed most over the past century, like the four in the subject line.

On heaven and hell, they have this to say:

"... Heaven is expansive and open, its phrases largely positive (e.g. a marriage made in heaven, to move heaven and earth), though a flutter of frustration can intervene (heaven knows, for heaven's sake). Heaven occurs in Beowulf, and so has coexisted with all the changes that have taken place within English over the years.
Much the opposite can be said of its counterpart hell (which, however, shares with heaven its longevity in the language). Hell is a bleak word: its main senses fiery, and its phrases and compounds rough (all hell breaks loose, hell on earth, hell-mouth, hell-ship). Such description has, of course, no place in an OED entry, and so we should return to the facts.
Hell is the larger entry (with one hundred and forty-two sections to heaven's forty-six). Yet heaven has eleven new senses whereas hell has only six."

Another key word which has been recently brought up to date—clearly not before time—is one which can be used as a verb, a noun or an interjection; the revised entry for the verb alone runs to 4,431 words, including quotations: the word is fuck.

The email does not quote the revised entries for any words, but clearly the writer realised that this one is of absorbing interest, so he provides a useful note on its history, written with that sly wit for which top lexicographers are noted:
"The term... perhaps confronts lexicographers with the most significant challenges of the current release... a taboo word in English... Its relative absence from the record presents issues in terms of describing its history... it is now possible to reassert an early sixteenth century date, with indications that the word is earlier... The first definite evidence for the word comes from a manuscript in Oxford dated 1528. Fuck presents a number of other issues for the lexicographer... the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century causes quotation difficulties... When the term or its associates do appear they are likely to be masked to avoid scandal or prosecution... The use of asterisks to mask the word is also problematic lexicographically... We might be happy to accept 'f—k' in the right context, but how much less certain might we be of 'f—'? And sometimes there is no letter at all to clarify what has been omitted (''). The entries for fuck and related words have been considerably expanded since OED2 (1989)... There the number of meanings and associated verbal phrases under the verb amounted to six... In the revised entry for the verb there are thirty-five components, showing a significant expansion of meaning and phrasal patterning (mainly from the mid twentieth century onwards)."

If you want to glance through these components, or the 2,039 words about the noun, or the half-dozen vigorous quotations listed for the interjection, you will need to go to the dictionary itself. In the UK a subscription to the online edition costs £195 a year plus VAT, or nothing if you have a ticket to an English public library. This does, of course give you access to the entries for another half a million words illustrated by 2½ million quotations, in addition to the ones mentioned above.


outeast said...

Distressingly far beyond my budget... Some day I guess I'll get the compact edition of the printed version, but charging that much for a year's online subscription seems absurd to me. A shame, as I'd really, really like access.

Hugh said...

Outeast, some suggestions:
1. Save up a great number of queries, then take out a quarter's subscription (£50).

2. Get some relative who lives in England to look things up for you.

3. Move to England and join a library.