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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 12:34 GMT
New chapter as dictionary goes online

OED Online quotes the Bible and Paula Yates
A new chapter is opening for the English language, as the "world's greatest dictionary", the Oxford English Dictionary, goes online.

All 20 volumes of the 72-year-old hardback heavyweight, which explains almost 750,000 words and phrases, can now be viewed on-screen.

Words and phrases of the 1990s
Nice but dim
Essex girl
Fat camp
source: OED online
You just type in your word, hit the search button, and it comes up with buttons from which you can choose pronunciations; explanations; etymologies; quotations or a chart to show its usage over the years.

In the future, say the OED's publishers, the internet version will be the canonical version, taking precedence over the hard copies.

The online version marks the first major overhaul for this authoritative guide since its first edition in 1928. Previously, new words had been listed primarily in supplements and appendices.

Badass: "A tough, aggressive or uncooperative person"
The net version surfs the zeitgeist with 10,000 new or revised words including thong, supermodel, shopaholic, body-piercing, cyberspace, attitude, charm-offensive and date rape.

Cyberspace, for example, is defined as the "notional environment within which electronic communication occurs". And according to the OED, it was coined by novelist William Gibson in 1982.

The words cover not only British dialect words old and new, but also words used in Englishes from around the world.

Thus the M entries, which are being revised first, include words such as macoute, a Haitian term for a bad man; maginnis, an Australian wrestling hold; and mack, a US term for a seductive talker.

The OED draws heavily on sources such as novels, newspapers, comedy scripts, soap operas and songs to explain how words are actually used.

It's a long way from Sir James Murray's 1928 edition
"Shopaholic" was first recorded in The Washington Post in 1984 - in an article dismissing rumours that Princess Diana was a compulsive shopper.

And "affluenza" - to describe a psychological malaise supposedly affecting the young wealthy - was again first recorded in The Washington Post, this time in 1979.

Shakespeare is the most quoted author (33,000 times), but less obvious sources such as Quentin Tarantino ("medieval"), PJ O'Rourke ("basehead"), Jeremy Paxman ("great") and even Paula Yates ("stonker") are also quoted.

And some of the histories of words are surprising.

Current editor John Simpson, with Murray Thomas, five
"Politically correct", that much-used term of the 1980s and 1990s, was first recorded in 1793, with American writer J Wilson urging toastmasters to refer to "the People of the United States" rather than "the United States".

And the use of the phrase "to have legs" to describe a good idea, famously used in business meetings, was first recorded in 1930 in a publication entitled "Texas Folk-Lore".

It's all a long way from the days of the dictionary's founder, academic Sir James Murray, who was commissioned by the Philological Society of London.

He devoted almost 40 years of his life, from 1879 until his death in 1915 when his team took over, to compiling the first edition.

The project proved so mammoth that it took him and his team five years to reach the word "ant".

Under the current revision project, more words will be added quarterly in batches of several thousand until its expected completion date of 2010.

By then, says editor John Simpson, the dictionary could double in size to include about 1.3 million words and phrases.

The online version of the dictionary is subscription only, with offices, libraries and other institutions expected to pay about 1,000 a year for it.

Oxford University Press has not yet decided what to charge domestic users, but the printed version will still be available, at a cost of about 1,500.

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