How to build a language: inside the Oxford English Dictionary

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The New Statesman’s Pippa Bailey has long had a professional as well as a personal interest in the OED: she and the team of sub-editors she leads rely on the world’s most comprehensive dictionary to answer questions of meaning and spelling. So it was a labour of love when she visited its Oxford HQ to meet the lexicographers whose decisions – about which words are added, revised, or rendered obsolete – help shape the world’s most-spoken language.

In this richly researched and beautifully observed deep dive, Bailey charts the course of the dictionary from its mid-19th-century origins to its most recent “new words” update (“terf”, “stealthing” and “sportswashing” were among the June 2022 inclusions). She visits the archive and hears from the specialists hard at work on the dictionary’s third edition – a job that began in 1994 (and the OED is still only halfway revised). Should they trace the first written use of “burner phone” to The Wire, or further back to a 1996 rap by Kingpin Skinny Pimp? Should they add the phrase “very traffic”? And why is it so hard to tell the origin story of “bucket list”?

This article first appeared on on 22 June and in the magazine on 24 June 2022. You can read the text version here.

Written by Pippa Bailey and read by Emma Haslett.

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