Oxford English Dictionary releases “OED Appeals” to crowdsource the origin of words

I really like this initiative from Oxford. It sounds so easy-peasy.

3rd October 2012–Today the Oxford English Dictionary announces the launch of OED Appeals, a major online initiative set to involve the public in tracing the history of English words. Using a dedicated community space on the OED website, editors are soliciting help in unearthing new information about the history and usage of English, including the earliest examples of particular words. The website will enable the public to post evidence in direct response to OED editors online, fostering a collective effort to record the English language and find the true roots of our vocabulary.

Appeals will be posted to the website on a frequent basis. Some of the entries the OED team is initially asking the public’s help with include:


Can you provide evidence of ‘bellini’ before 1965? The famous cocktail of peach juice mixed with Prosecco or champagne is said to have been invented in Venice at Harry’s Bar in the 1930s, and named (in Italian) in 1948 (in honor of the painter Giovanni Bellini, c1430-1516). Earlier evidence in English may be available in travelogues or guidebooks.


blue-arsed fly
Did anyone refer to this metaphorical fly before the Duke of Edinburgh was quoted saying it in 1970? Our first evidence for blue-arsed fly (with an ‘r’) comes from a quote attributed to Prince Philip in The Times (22 Apr. 1970): “The Duke of Edinburgh…asked a photographer if he was getting enough pictures… ‘You have been running around like a blue-arsed fly.” The r-less blue assed-fly, however, is attested from at least 1932. Can you find examples of blue-arsed fly in the intervening years?


come in from the cold
Did John le Carré coin the phrase? Meaning ‘(esp. of a spy) to return from isolation, concealment, or exile’, it is famous from le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy who Came in from the Cold but  was it ever used by actual intelligence officers?


Was a disco ‘a type of short, sleeveless dress’ before it was a nightclub? That’s the surprising implication of evidence we’ve recently uncovered in a source dated July 1964. The earliest example of disco as a nightclub only appears a few months later. Publications about nightlife in the 1960s might be a good place to look for earlier evidence of disco in the nightclub sense.


Do you have proof of the earliest FAQ? The term is currently attributed to Eugene N. Miya, a researcher at NASA, who is said to have coined it c1983 in documents circulated to Usenet groups on the history of the space program. Our earliest verifiable evidence is from 1989 but we’d like to go back further to prove the coinage of the word.


Other entries now open on the OED Appeals site at launch include in your dreams!, cooties, and Kwanzaa. The OED Appeals site will be updated regularly; other words scheduled for research in the coming weeks include baked Alaska, bimble, carbo-loading, easy-peasy, email, heads-up, and party animal. Followers of the OED on Twitter and Facebook will be alerted to new Appeals and can keep abreast of new word evidence as it comes to light.


The OED’s expansive record of the history of English has relied on input from the public since its earliest days, from the original Appeal for contributions from ‘a thousand readers’ in 1859, to the popular BBC TV program Balderdash & Piffle in 2005. The online OED Appeals brings the public into conversation with the dictionary’s professional lexicographers more directly than ever before.


Chief Editor of the OED, John Simpson, explains how the OED Appeals initiative will help the team to revise the OED: “When researching and revising entries, our team of editors use the OED’s famous citation files, gathered over more than a century, as well as the latest digitized databases and Corpus evidence. Nonetheless, the very first recorded usage of many words can be difficult to track down. We can trace certain words and phrases back only so far with conventional tools. An old takeaway menu, a family letter or album, or an obscure journal might hold the key to solving one of those mysteries.”


OED editor Katherine Connor Martin adds, “The OED’s record of the history of English was relying on input from the public more than a century before the term ‘crowdsourcing’ was even coined. James Murray launched an Appeal to the public as far back as 1879, and the OED Appeals continues this long tradition of asking the public for help in our quest to record the origins of our vast, fantastic, ever-changing lexicon. After all, when it comes to the words we read, write, speak, and hear each day, every one of us is an expert.”


Follow us on Twitter: @OEDonline.



Notes for Editors

For press access to OED Online, further information about the public OED Appeals, or to arrange an interview with a lexicographer (including John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED), please contact Nicola Burton, Oxford Dictionaries Publicist, on 01865 353911 or nicola.burton@oup.com.


What is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words –  past and present – from across the English-speaking world.

As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from those of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find these in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language – traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books. View frequently asked questions about the OED here.


Has the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) appealed to the public before?
The very first appeal related to the OED was issued by the Philological Society in 1859, the founding body which collected materials for the dictionary which would later become the OED. Subsequently the principal editor of the OED, James (later Sir James) Murray initiated his first Appeal to Readers in April 1879. Readers were invited to read designated books and send in examples of the words they encountered.


Murray soon realized that the dictionary also needed targeted help on specific words, for instance in cases where he was certain that earlier, or later, examples of a word must exist. He issued a new type of request, for nearly sixty words in the range from abacist to abnormous, in the pages of the journal Notes and Queries in 1879, but it was soon followed by a series of pamphlets which were issued over the course of seventeen years and reprinted in a variety of journals.


Even after the first edition of the OED was published, in 1928, public appeals for help with particular words continued in various forms in conjunction with Supplements, the Second Edition of the OED in 1989, and the revision currently underway.


In 2005, the OED teamed up with the BBC to engage the public in lexicographical research through the television series Balderdash & Piffle. This programme produced word evidence from sources that would never have been accessible through ordinary research, from a schoolgirl’s autograph book to a policeman’s notebook.


OED Appeals creates a communal research space online, harnessing the reach of the Internet and social media to connect lexicographers with those who may hold hidden clues to word history without realizing it. More on the history of the OED here.


Should dictionaries crowdsource?

The Oxford English Dictionary has been a crowdsourced undertaking since its inception in the 19th century, with volunteer readers providing much of the core evidence of the first edition.  The OED Appeals are a natural continuation of the OED’s efforts over more than a century to involve the English-speaking public in recording the history of our shared language.  All submissions are scrupulously verified to ensure their accuracy. Editorial decisions will always be made on the basis of OED’s bedrock principles of lexicography, but now with the benefit of additional evidence provided by our online community.


Free public library access

Nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland, and Wales — and all in Northern Ireland—subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary Online. This means you can access the dictionary, free, via your local library.   Many libraries, including those elsewhere in the world, also offer remote access from home for library card holders by entering your library membership number at www.oed.com.

Further information on public library access here.


Free trials and subscriptions

The Oxford English Dictionary Online is available by subscription to institutions and individuals worldwide.  For further information visit our subscriptions page. Free trials of all Oxford Dictionary online products are available to institutions. Librarians and central resource coordinators can register for a trial here.

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One thought on “Oxford English Dictionary releases “OED Appeals” to crowdsource the origin of words”

  1. “The OED’s record of the history of English was relying on input from the public more than a century before the term ‘crowdsourcing’ was even coined.”

    The OED was crowdsourced before crowdsourcing was cool. Readers have always been a source for references for the OED. Just read The Professor and the Madman. This is cool, but is cooler is that this type of thing has always been part of its M.O.

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