OED Revisits “Information”

Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary published online a revised entry for the word “information.” The revision tells a lot about our evolving relations with reference information and the much-discussed accuracy of information on the Web as opposed to print (and information overload, and what the Internet is doing to our brains, etc., etc.). Fifteen years ago I gave my wife the 20 printed volumes of the OED 2nd edition, published in 1989, for which I paid $1000. Consulting it frequently, I have always been convinced that the first documented meaning of the word “information” was “formation of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching,” which the OED listed as its #1 explanation/usage, and the oldest (citation from Chaucer, dated c1386). At #4, it offered “the action of informing against, charging, or accusing” with the first citation from 1480. The revised entry reverses this order, putting “the action of imparting accusatory or incriminatory intelligence against a person” as #1 (with a 1386 citation from the Rolls of Parliament) and “The shaping of the mind or character; communication of instructive knowledge; education, training” as #4, with the first citation from 1387. The Chaucer citation is now dated c1405.  The first documented appearance of the meaning of information as “news” is now dated 1390, as opposed to 1450 in the 1989 edition. And so on…. All of this great updating of reference information and facts is now published free of charge by the OED on the Web (and you can get everything else in the OED for free provided your local public or university library has bought a subscription). The “capacity of informing” (designated as “rare” usage by the OED) our minds has certainly grown larger and richer with the Web. While Shannon (and the multitude of people building on his information theory) paved the way for developing the platforms for processing, storing, and disseminating information, Tim Berners-Lee (and the multitude of people building on his invention) has put meaning back in information and paved the way for launching myriad of tools to help shape and expand our minds. The first use of the term “information explosion,” according to the revised entry is from 1941: “Are people better informed than they used to be? Answer: Yes, thanks to the information explosion.”

Michael Proffitt, the Managing Editor of the OED, says in his overview of the revised entry: “The growing availability and abundance of information through print, broadcast, and then digital media is inevitably mirrored in the increasing use of the word. Its rising profile can be measured by counting and ranking the frequency of its appearances in searchable text corpora amassed over the past few decades. The Project Gutenberg corpus of mostly pre-1900 literature lists it as the 486th most frequent word; the 1967 Brown Corpus of contemporary American English places it 346th; and the 1997 British National Corpus lists it as 219th. A recent survey of online usage reported information as the 22nd most frequently used word. While these statistics need to be treated with some caution—neither the corpora themselves nor the analytical methods applied are strictly comparable—the impression they convey is accurate. This is an old word with a new lease of life. Its prolific growth is reflected in a revised OED entry twice the size of the original.”

What also is reflected in this and other OED revisions is the importance of dedicated, specialized curation of information online.


About GilPress

I launched the Big Data conversation; writing, research, marketing services; http://whatsthebigdata.com/ & https://infostory.com/
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