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.

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