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robert macNeil and jesse sheidlower,nyc public library

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The OED

The Oxford English Dictionary
- In America

As the preparation of the Third Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary gets fully under way, Jesse Sheidlower explains that one of the major changes to the OED’s editorial efforts has been the creation of an office concentrating on the collection and editing of material relating to North American English.

North America, and the United States in particular, needs a separate editorial office for several reasons, beginning with the great importance of American English today. More so than at any time in history, American English plays a dominant role internationally, exporting words from technical fields to street slang and everything in between. And unlike many other English-speaking countries, the United States has no comprehensive historical dictionary whose research can feed into the OED.

The OED’s North American Editorial Unit (NAEU) is ensuring that American terms can be edited in America by Americans who are familiar with the peculiarities of American English, its dialects, and its history. The extensive scholarship devoted to American English can be more efficiently monitored from here, and we stay in touch with leading scholars and current research by attending the major academic conferences.

For its first two years, the NAEU made do with a single editor, who has to handle everything, leaving little time for broad-based editorial attention to the OED text. In November, the office appointed Madeline McDonnell and Abigail Zitin as its first two Assistant Editors. Now that they have completed their preliminary training, they are able to make a substantial contribution to the OED’s coverage of American English. Rather than merely glancing over the entries that are labelled ‘U.S.’, the NAEU now has the opportunity to review all editorial text, ensuring that American nuances are not missed through being unfamiliar to the British editor who originally reviewed the word.

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The North American Reading Program (which staunchly clings to the American spellings of ‘programme’) has a longer history, having been originally set up in 1989; it’s readers have examined a variety of sources that supplement the OED’s previous reading. From the 1800 period we have looked at such non-literary texts as Thomas Jefferson’s memoranda books, which record a variety of household expenses, legal jottings, and the like; the diaries of George Washington; and travel writings such as George Grieve’s translation of J.F. Chastellux’s Travels in North America in the Years of 1780, 1781, and 1782. In more recent years, we have been concentrating on the period in the middle of the twentieth century that is not well covered by electronic databases. Texts from this period that we have examined include movie scripts (from Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Robert Riskin, and others); the published letters of Beat Generation figures Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs; short stories of Dashiell Hammett; and comic books. We have recently read a wide variety of modern Caribbean fiction, and hope to turn increased attention to Canadian writings soon.

The NAEU is also working closely with the new words group in Oxford, carefully reviewing the high-profile new words that are so often of American origin, and drafting new entries for words that have come to our attention. Some of the words we have drafted in recent months include tipping point, gentleman’s C, weaponize, collateral damage, blog, skeevy, and perp walk.

Over the next few years, we hope to further expand the North American Editorial Unit. As our staff grows, we will be able to handle an even larger range of American material, researching and editing any entry for which there is American content. In future issues of OED News we hope to be able to report in more detail on how the NAEU is working to improve the OED’s treatment of this important regional variety.

Jesse Sheidlower, Principal Editor, OED (North American Editorial Unit)

Reprinted courtesy: The newsletter of the Oxford English Dictionary

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

Jesse Sheidlower is the principal North American Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and was featured in the 2002 IBM ThinkPad campaign "Interesting People With Interesting Jobs." He is the author of the controversial, best-selling book The F Word, and has written several "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine, filling in for William Safire. Mr. Sheidlower is a member of the editorial board of Copyeditor Magazine.

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