Celebrating OED’s 80th

If there was ever any question that Yale has left its mark on the world, Fred Shapiro answered it — with a resounding yes. According to Shapiro, a frequent contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “hot dog” originated in a parodical Yale publication in the 1890s.

“If you ate a frankfurter, you never knew what was in it. It could be dog meat,” said Shapiro, who is also associate librarian of the Yale Law School and author of “The Yale Book of Quotations.” “So they humorously called it a hot dog.”

(Disclaimer: The frankfurter to which the publication was referring was not from a Buttery.)

Shapiro, along with three other linguistic experts, will speak on different aspects of the Oxford English Dictionary tomorrow at a symposium hosted by the Yale University Library and the Oxford University Press to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the OED. Other speakers include Simon Winchester, author of “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary”; Jesse Sheidlower, the OED’s editor at large; and Ammon Shea, author of “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.”

“I think students will find the panel very engaging,” Geoffrey Little, library communications coordinator and event organizer, wrote in an e-mail. “The four speakers are experts in the field of word-smithing and they all come at it in different ways.”

Shapiro, who will be speaking about the connections between Yale and the OED, has contributed to over 10,000 entries in the dictionary, the most recent of which was the word “jazz.” Though once thought to have origins in sexual phrases, “it actually seems to have originated from a baseball context on the West coast,” he said. The first newspapers to use the word did so in reference to a type of pitch.

Sheidlower will speak about recent revisions to the text, a process that began in 2000. The symposium will be interesting for more than just crossword-puzzle enthusiasts, he said.

“I think that most people don’t really understand what the OED is about. They think it’s just a very big dictionary that has a lot of words,” Sheidlower said. “It is, and it does, but the OED is a lot more than that.”

And, as those in attendance Wednesday will learn, the dictionary has had a significant impact on the English language over the last 80 years.

“The OED illustrates how the words we use all the time, and often without thinking about them, have been shaped by history, culture and geography,” Little wrote. “It’s easy to take language for granted, but the OED reminds us that our words and our language are fluid and ever-evolving.”

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