Journal Article

‘That reliance on the ordinary’: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary

Charlotte Brewer

in The Review of English Studies

Volume 66, issue 276, pages 744-765
Published in print September 2015 | ISSN: 0034-6551
Published online May 2015 | e-ISSN: 1471-6968 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/res/hgv032
‘That reliance on the ordinary’: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary

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  • Literary Studies (Postcolonial Literature)
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Evidence on Austen’s vocabulary in the OED can be used to illuminate the characteristic of her work remarked on by literary critics from Walter Scott onwards: at once the ordinariness and the distinctiveness of her writing. Unusually for a female author, Austen’s works are quoted many times in the OED; unusually for any author, her works received special attention not only in the first edition of the dictionary (published 1884-1928), but also—despite their date of composition, ostensibly making them ineligible for inclusion—in the Supplement to the OED (1972-1986), which updated the dictionary with recent twentieth-century vocabulary. Now that the OED, for the first time in its history, is undergoing revision, Austen’s novels and letters are once more being quoted in high numbers, and the rate of citation from her work has significantly increased. In all three editions (including today’s OED), lexicographers have quoted a profusion of domestic, commonplace vocabulary from her works; in all three editions many of these quotations are identified as first recorded examples of use. Yet OED’s predilection for sourcing household and everyday (rather than conceptual and moral) vocabulary in Austen may reflect the prior cultural biases of the lexicographers and their volunteer readers as much as the linguistic qualities of her writing; these matters are explored and OED’s methodology and processes of revision are discussed. It is also shown that the recent changes to the OED website (OED Online, at www.oed.com) have made investigation of historical lexis much harder than before.

Journal Article.  10850 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (Postcolonial Literature) ; Literary Studies (American) ; Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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