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A word's worth

August 07, 2003 10:07 IST

As the Holy Grail of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED for short, occupies a unique position as judge and jury in the world of communication.

For generations it has defined what an acceptable measure of the Queen's English is, seen off pretentious slang and other vulgar claimants, thus providing the ballast to help the language grow and continue expanding across the globe.

So a decision earlier this year to identify and define Bollywood -- Bollywood refers to the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai -- is by any standards a momentous occasion.

True, it is only one in 2,000 suggested new words that makes it to the OED every year, but the inclusion of Bollywood confirms the West's acceptance of a social and cultural phenomenon that has been evident to Indians for many years.

The process of selecting a word starts with a full time member of the staff belonging to the reading programme funded by the OED.

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'Only the best are chosen'

There is one Indian among the 40 full-time readers across the world; their only job is to read print material ranging from newspapers to film scripts and highlight any new word or word meaning that stands out.

"Choosing the words is quite a mechanical process," explains OED Editor Graham Diamond.

"They send the words back to us. We then have a team of people who key in the quotation that contained that particular word, so we can see the context, along with a note that gives the source, the provenance, which country or area the word came from.

"This all goes to make up a massive database that we have of uses of words that have been highlighted by someone as being in some way interesting; we use this as a basis to decide which words we should keep an eye on."

"It gives you a really good overview of what level of currency words are enjoying and where it's being used and by people with what sorts of interests, all kinds of things."

The OED lists 112 different sources for Bollywood, including newspapers from India, Britain and America, as well as a book called Bollywood that was published in 2001.

The first quotation referring to Bollywood is out of a 1976 book called Filmy, Filmy by H R F Keating, who created Inspector Ghote.

"Looking at the date is quite interesting because there is an avalanche of uses starting in the late 1990s, which is obviously when it came to a larger awareness and hence our awareness," explains Diamond. "So 1976 would have been dug up after quite a lot of hard work."

Unlike some of its flashier rivals, the OED has no time for flash-in-the-pan words that come and go like waves of fashion.

Yummy Mummy has no room in the OED, nor does shagtastic, meaning attractive person, or bootlycious, meaning another type of attractive person, like a woman with a curvaceous bottom.

These are the types of words that will find a ready home in other more popular types of dictionaries, including some that are produced across the Atlantic in the United States.

But in the rarefied atmosphere of the OED editorial scanning room, a new word must have been in circulation for at least five years before it warrants serious consideration.

"There's no hard-and-fast rule because there's always a special consideration of one sort or another," says Diamond. But he admits, "Certainly, we like a word to have had a lifespan of at least five years.

"Of course, some things take off and they are obviously in the general vocabulary and then you can be pretty certain that there will be an entry drafted.

"It's not like one person's whim that they want to draft something and put it in without much evidence. Someone else will also see it and cross-reference it. Otherwise, it won't be justifiable."

In the pre-Internet age, readers used to send in new words written on little slips of paper with more words and quotations written alongside. In those days the editors would demand five different uses from five different sources before a new word was even considered for inclusion.

Since then, according to Diamond, the Internet has made it possible to fulfil this criterion easily. This makes it much harder to select new words, so the five-year rule is a useful backstop to make sure a new word really has caught on.

Zorbing is one of the new words that has survived the five year test along with Bollywood. It means an extreme sport when people roll down a hill in a big transparent bubble, or in dictionary parlance, 'a sport originating in New Zealand in which a participant is secured in an inner capsule of a large transparent PVC ball which is then rolled along the ground downhill.'

But Quidditch, the favourite sport of JK Rowling's Harry Potter, or Yetties, defined by one of the OED's rivals as Young, Entrepreneurial and Technology-based People, will have a long wait before they are seen in the august pages of the OED.

Even if a word is selected, it will have to wait a generation or more before it can be included in the print version of the OED. The first edition was printed in 1928 and the second in 1989. It may be another decade or two before the third edition, which will be over 20 volumes, is ready for publication.

Until then, the home for new words will be the shorter and concise versions of the dictionary and the Internet version that currently sucks up 2,000 new words per year.

"Obviously smaller dictionaries come out with greater rapidity, the concise ones can be yearly," says Diamond. "The shorter edition has been through a few more, but even that is only on its fifth edition.

"We never omit a word we want to use because we are a historical dictionary," he says. "A word that died out 20 years ago is of interest because it says something about the cultural milieu of the time."

After all, as the editors would like the English-speaking public to believe, the Holy Grail is infallible.

Image: Uttam Ghosh

Shyam Bhatia