A Variorum OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a notoriously patchy text, having been written and re-written over a span of 130 years or so. In a recent post I put together a graphic representation of this, coloring bits from different editions, additional series and supplements.

But even an up-to-date, revised entry in OED3 is a patchwork, combining and editing elements from previous iterations of the dictionary. Those of us whose research focuses on the historical development of the dictionary have often complained that it’s hard to sort out what’s new and what’s a holdover in revised entries, and when the change was made.

What we need is a variorum OED to pick apart what text was added when, and how text changed over time. Ideally every element (headword, etymology, definition, quotation, etc.) in every edition would be linked to a revision history.

I’ve mocked up what that might look like graphically in the website embedded below (also accessible here). It starts out with the current entry for off-handed, and lets you highlight the edition where each element first appeared (click “highlight” at the top). You can also switch the view to any previous edition or supplement, and see how the entry appeared there. Each element also has a revision history summary tagged to it. I doubt we’ll ever see such a thing implemented at OED.com, but the accumulating underlying information ought in principle to be achievable.



  • kts wrote:

    I like the idea, but this view is too detailed for almost anybody except you and me and Charlotte Brewer :). Of course, the big problem is that “OED3” isn’t monolithic, it would really need hundreds of different colors!

    The average user definitely needs better visual cueing of what’s old and what isn’t.
    I’d like to see an indication of the source edition at a coarse scale: pronunciation; form history and etymology; each sub-sense and sub-entry. Maybe use background color for each block: no background for Third Edition, light pastels for old editions. That would at least make it visually obvious when the pronunciation and etymology are updated but the rest of the entry isn’t, which is the case for a lot of entries.

    For finer details, ideally there would be a revision history like Wikipedia’s.

  • Quite so – think of this little model more as a visualization of the backend concept, rather than an actual front end.

    But it is useful to know what adepts such as yourself would like to see tracked and how you’d like to interact with it. Ideally the back=end would be fully granular, with the front end much more “useable”.

    It’s a project I’m hoping will get funded in the near future, since I’m fairly sure I’ll need some helping hands.

  • A Variorum OED is badly needed, but I would avoid colors. The page needs to be accessible to those with visual impairments.

  • @Dave – Yes, for sure. The above is emphatically /not/ a design prototype – more like a graphical representation of the back-end data markup. I realize that could have been clearer in the post.

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