OED “Transgender” Update Update

In my last post [“Why we need a Variorum OED: ‘Transgender’ ” 9/12/2020], I pointed to the OED entry for TRANSGENDER as it appeared in December 2020 as a good example of the need for a Variorum OED, which would label all elements (etymologies, definitions, quotations) with their individual revision histories.

Well, in the last three months, OED.com has implemented a change in this direction in their entry presentation, which I’m sorry to say is a big fail:

OK, so the edition date has been updated from March 2003 (entry creation date) to March 2018 (latest full update), which is what I had surmised had occured in my previous post. That’s all good, but now we also have an even more recent update listed, the “latest version published online”, which is July 2020.

What is the difference between the edition date and the “latest version published online”, you ask? Does it mean definitions have been updated or more recent or older quotation evidence adduced? OED gives this boilerplate explanation in the Entry History link:

But, even if the link is clicked-through (most users will not) the information is so general as to be meaningless (since the “may include” includes essentially all categories of change) or even misleading, as one will naturally note that definitions may have been updated, while glossing over “styling of citations”  (which, like, who cares)?

So what has in fact been updated about TRANSGENDER? You don’t know, and there’s no way to tell. Unless, that is, you painstakingly compare the three versions, which I just happened to have archived here. [tl;dr: nothing much — I challenge you to spot the change!]

So instead of providing useful additional information about the version history of any particular entry, the “latest version published” date further muddles the provenance of an entry’s various elements. That’s because any change whatsoever in an entry, down to the smallest correction or formatting change, will trigger a “latest version” update to the entry.

This was brought home to me earlier this week, when an ESL trans rights activist from the Middle East DMed me on Twitter to ask (having read my previous post) whether the OED definition had indeed been updated in 2020, a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, given the info on OED.com. Now you might say that two years isn’t really a long time in lexicographical matters, but this person had a number of critiques and complaints about the way OED had phrased its definitions, which in the context of a rapidly changing public discourse would be much more acute for a definition updated eight months ago than it would for one drawn up over three years ago (and so perhaps be expected to change some time soon).

That is, it’s not only dictionary data nerds like me who have a stake in understanding the history of OED entries, down to the minutiae of spot edits and updates. It matters to people.

And it’s not only recent entries like TRANSGENDER that are showing even more recent version dates when not very much has changed. Consult virtually any OED.com entry, and you will find a latest version date some time in the last year or two or three, often because of changes in presentation style applied algorithmically across the dictionary. The impression is of a very up-to-date dictionary, which at least half of OED.com is very much not. To take one example, a favorite bugbear of mine, consider the entry for DINNER as it now appears on OED.com:

This is no doubt leading to all sorts of confusion and consternation across the English speaking and English learning globe, though perhaps in a less pressing way than for my recent trans correspondent.

4 Comments

  • Max N wrote:

    The dinner entry also misspells Mittagessen.

  • kts wrote:

    As I’m sure you know, Charlotte Brewer’s Examining the OED project has been calling out the problem with untracked changes for years. In the page on Continuous change, she makes a comparison to Wikipedia, where every change is tracked in a way that’s easy even for beginners to understand. And Wikipedia is a lot bigger and more frequently updated than the OED.

    Why can’t the OED do that? I’m just half-assed guessing here, since I haven’t read even one of the many books about the OED. Probably money is a reason. But that’s just another way of saying that culture is a reason: change-tracking is less important to them than whatever they do spend money on. I don’t want to accuse them of an attitude of “we’re the experts, just trust us”, I don’t know enough to say that, but it does seem like they don’t expect their customers to care about this. That’s where they’re wrong. The culture has changed around them since the OED3 was first planned in the 1990s. We now have a culture that knows that websites are impermanent, and expects archiving and change-tracking in response.

    John Simpson wrote a blog post about how they’re re-checking quotes from Early Modern authors such as Spenser, reverting 19th-century editions to the original spelling and punctuation and correcting publication dates, so that the quotes appear as they did to their original audience. He’s proud of that work and thinks readers will be interested, and well he should. That work would be visible, if they had a system to track changes.

    Keep the pressure on. I think this is a standard that a 21st-century reference work should meet.

  • We now have a culture that knows that websites are impermanent, and expects archiving and change-tracking in response.

    Yes, good point, and arguably with something like OED, revision history is even more crucial than with purportedly up-to-date references such as wikipedia, or the Oxford Dictionary of English etc.. OED is historical in two important ways — both in its coverage and in its own development. Increasingly the difference (and the interaction between these aspects) need to be made apparent, even highlighted. How a word was defined, etymologized, cited etc. in 1888 or 1933 or 1972 or 2000 (or 2003, 2018, 2021) is important lexicological and sociological information in and of itself.

  • Why can’t the OED do that?

    My guess is similar to yours: the underlying system doesn’t keep its own revision history (not so all-singing, all-dancing, then…) and so these would have to be reverse-engineered from static versions (which I believe are kept), and there’s no room in the budget for such a project (not to mention redesigning the online skin to accommodate it etc.).

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