Why We Need a Variorum OED: “Transgender”

In “A Variorum OED” (13/7/2020) I gave a couple of brief reasons why we should be interested in knowing what revisions OED has made to words, senses, and documentation over its several Editions, Supplements, and Additional Series.

The need for a Variorum–i.e. a detailed revision history for every published element of the OED since 1884–is becoming even more acute, as the OED3 revision project begins to increase the amount of “spot revision”, or partial revision, as well as re-revision and ongoing editorial maintenance, vis-à-vis its traditional practice of staged, entry-by-entry revision of pre-2000 material.

An example of both the partial revision and the re-revision that has been going on behind the scenes in OED3 came up in my post on the rise of Twitter as an OED source (“From ‘Awesomesauce’ to ‘Unlike’: Twitter in the OED” – 4/8/2020), where they, fully revised in 2013, had been partially re-revised with several more recent quotations reflecting gender neutrality, ambiguity, or non-binarism, and augmented by at least one new sense entirely, to refer a “person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions” (first evidence from Twitter in 2009,  latest from 2019).

From my present vantage in December 2020, I can deduce that this sense (and perhaps the other additional quotation evidence?) was added at some time in the last 13 or 14 months, since the post-2013 material includes evidence dated October 2019.

What I don’t know is what other emendations might have been made between 2013 and the end of 2019. In the same vein and to a greater degree, 20 or 50 years from now people looking up they won’t necessarily know at what point(s) after 2019 the entry was updated (or where and how).

Consider, relatedly I think, the OED entry for transgender, which today, in December of 2020, looks like this (you should be able to scroll within the frame):

Note that the publication date of this entry reads “This is a new entry (OED Third Edition, March 2003)“, but the quotation evidence contains several later quots, going right up to 2016.

In fact the entry transgender, having been published for the first time in 2003, with evidence running from 1974 to 2000, was completely revised at some point in 2018 (probably the March 2018 update), reorganizing and adding senses, rewriting definitions and notes, eliminating some quotation evidence, and adding more quotation evidence.

From 2003 to 2017, the entry looked something like this (I have reformatted the data according to the current style sheet):

Without getting too much into an evaluation of this revision, either on its own or vis-à-vis the previous version (that I leave to you — though to me some quotation omissions do seem to be sanitizing a history of transphobia), it’s clear that at least by the end of 2017, OED3 editors felt their 2003 entry was insufficient to the present moment.

Fair enough, but as an historical dictionary, clearly it’s a pertinent historical fact that between 2003 and 2017 (or whenever the decision to make this edit was made), the 2003 entry was considered adequate, perhaps even cutting-edge. People studying the history of dictionaries, the history of transgender, and/pr the history of the idea of the transgender (OED def. B2), should be able to track this development (and, minor point — what of the scholar who may have relied on OED in 2015 for some purpose, only to find the information they relied on expunged from the record?).

To boot, since “spot revision” is becoming more of a priority (though not perhaps the main priority) for OED3, especially to clean up lingering outdated language (read: racist etc.) one might expect transgender to undergo further changes in the coming years. Its unmarked reference to “a person who is transsexual or transvestite”, for instance, we might expect to be revised, given what I perceive to be creeping deprecation of these terms–this is noted by OED3 for the noun form of transsexual (rev. 2018), but not yet for transvestite (rev. 1986). Or perhaps the noun form of transgender to designate a person will follow the noun form of transsexual and acquire a derogatory connotation. Perhaps it already has.

A natural consequence of being up-to-date is the risk of being soon out-of-date, in this field especially when documenting the vocabulary of current and evolving social movements. What tomorrow’s scholars will want to know, at the very least, will be the date — what was changed, added, and removed, and when. A Variorum OED will need to account not just for changes between editions, but for changes within the ongoing OED3.


  • ktschwarz wrote:

    “What tomorrow’s scholars will want to know, at the very least, will be the date.”

    Mic drop.

    I can see why they dropped the 1990 quotation (“Transgender model Bruce Laker’s plans for a white wedding have been dashed.”): it’s a duplicate of the preceding 1984 quote, probably a production error on their part. Did that really go uncorrected from 2003 to 2017? Wow.

    I wonder what the actual quotation from Rouge, Winter 1990 was supposed to be. The OED has cited this same issue of, presumably, a magazine in other entries (gaze, n.; madam; porridge pot; scene; womanish) but, irritatingly, provides no further information. Author? Publisher? Location? Nada. Google eventually coughed up the information that Rouge can be found in some library archives of gay magazines, and is not the same as at least two other periodicals titled Rouge. This sort of incomplete citation is depressingly common at the OED.

  • Och-! the 1990 quote text is my error – I had to manually reconstruct the entry for this mock up by pasting in text and didn’t catch the repeat. The /Rouge/ quot should read: ‘ “Gender Dysphoria”..is a blanket term covering the range of transgender phenomena.’ I’ll correct this shortly.

    Your bibliographical point stands – even in OED2 /Times/ can sometimes mean the /New York Times/, but the bibliographical problem is today as widespread as the sources are wide ranging. There is a certain amount of background rehabilitation of the bibliography going on (and some titles will pop up additional publication information) but in general the system is not much improved from 19th C author-work model (or just work if a periodical).

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