University of Leicester eBulletin

Nu Wrds 4 Old

July 2002
No 141

Wordsmiths Assess Evolution Of Dictionaries

Dictionaries of the future may be filled with definitions of texting as they continue to chart social change and technological advances through the use of language.

But there is nothing new about the truncated use of language to communicate - people were at it during the 18th century claims the organiser of an international conference on dictionaries at the University of Leicester.

One speaker at the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology will chart the development of the word 'pregnancy' through the centuries.

Another will dwell on ornamental illustrations in French dictionaries while one paper will discuss the evolution of the term 'bachelor'.

Organiser Dr Julie Coleman of the University of Leicester's Department of English said: "Dictionaries are far more than just lists of words - they provide a character reference of a language.  Through their content, dictionaries reflect many things including the changes in technology,  and in social and cultural values. 

"For example, complaints about the use of abbreviated terms were made during the 18th century too. Joseph Addison complained about people using 'mob' [from 'mobile', itself an abbreviation of 'mobile vulgus' "the moveable (excitable) crowd"], 'rep' [for 'reputation'], 'pos' [for 'positive'], and 'incog' [for 'incognito'].

"Dictionaries of the past would omit words which were considered unfit for usage or mark them as 'low', indicating that any user of such a word was the same.

"Present day dictionaries rarely exclude such words for this reason and usually provide no instruction as to which words should and should not be used."

Rapid changes in technologies and ideologies are also reflected in dictionaries.  New words for such areas are constantly being introduced - words that no one had imagined twenty or even five years ago. This is highlighted by the annual publication of the Oxford English Dictionary 'New Words' book.

"The conference is set to be an opportunity for people writing on similar areas to come together and share the benefits of one another's knowledge. Talks will be given on a variety of 'sub-topics' ranging from 'Place names and Historical Lexicography' to 'Definitions for a New Age',"  said Dr Coleman.

One speaker, Professor Manfred Markus of the University of Innsbruck, will examine The Expression of Pregnancy in the History of English.

He has found about 140 words relating to pregnancy in the Oxford English Dictionary- some in terms of animals or objects, some metaphorical descriptions, factual and camouflaged usage.

He states: "Pregnancy has also been referred to in a downtoning way. The results of this investigation reveal a historical increase in metaphorical sophistication, a tendency to camouflage (18th to 20th century), and to downtoning in the 20th century."

The conference takes place from July 15th to July 17th at the University conference centres in Oadby. More information is available on

Note to newsdesk: For more information: Dr Julie Coleman , Senior Lecturer, English Department, University of Leicester, University Road , Leicester, LE1 7RH , UK (phone: + 44(0)116 252 2635, fax: + 44(0)116 252 2065).

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