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How to build a language: inside the Oxford English Dictionary – Audio Long Reads

The OED’s task – to define every English word – is as ambitious as it was 150 years ago.

By Pippa Bailey and Emma Haslett

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 newstatesman.com 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.

You also might enjoy listening to How the trial of the Colston Four was won by Tom Lamont.

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[ See also: The psychiatrists who don’t believe in mental illness – Audio Long Reads ]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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