Alison Waters, publisher of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, talks to Shubashree Desikan about the work that goes into building a dictionary.

What is special about the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD)?

Most of us have studied other languages ourselves. We are all ex-teachers ourselves, so we know the problems learners have. It’s not just a book of words, where people look up how to spell something or what something means, it also helps in writing. Teachers have told us they have a real problem teaching writing to the students. So, we give this whole section that provides models and pieces of language that students might need when they are writing reports or an essay about what they did in the weekend, or how to write a letter to apply for a job, for example, which is critical.

What is the need for such workshops for teachers?

Teachers may have the dictionary but they may not have looked at everything that’s in there. They may not realise how it can be exploited in the classroom. They could use quite a lot of material in the dictionary as a basis for a lesson or an activity within a lesson.

Do you find the Internet works against people using the dictionary?

Yes. With the digital age and the expectation of instant information everyone has — the tradition of looking up a print book and turning pages is disappearing.

With more free dictionary sites and Wikipedia, we try to point out that it is very limited, not good quality material and most of it is not written for learners of English or teachers of English.

So, it is not going to deal with the kind of problems you might be having. Also, in order to address the amount of free material on the Internet and people’s expectations that everything should be free, we have free websites of our own.

There are new words added in every new edition, how do you choose which new words to include?

There are a lot of words that come in from sports like “paddle-boating” and “parkour,” which means jumping from building to building done as a sport. We have a tool called “incomings” which we can all access. It trawls the web and identifies new words that we don’t have in our database. It can track when the word first came into the language and in which part of the world it was first sighted, what area of language it is connected with and so on. So we can analyse it, usually over a period of years, when it reaches a certain frequency, then we might consider putting it in — but it takes time and analysis.

There are people in the OED who are dedicated to researching language, not just new language but also language used in different ways. Or finding words that predate the time we thought it was used first. It’s a whole process of tracking the language, watching it evolve, and recording it.

A new edition of the dictionary is like taking a photograph of what the English language looks like today.

“Selfie” has been declared the word of the year, but what would be your favourite new word?

One of the words that was rejected was “bingewatch.” It’s when you buy a book set — a set of all the DVDs of a series and watch them all. Another one was “Twerk” which I quite like because the origin of that is unknown. It’s this sexually provocative dance that has come into the language in 2012. Very recently Miley Cyrus made it popular by “twerking” in an award ceremony, and it was in the news. I thought it was a combination of twitching and jerking, but they think the word’s origin may possibly be “working.” It is interesting how it came to be… I find those words more interesting than “selfie,” which is more like an abbreviation for “self-portrait.”

Merriam Webster’s online version has a graph-like plot of related words. Does OALD offer such features online?

Yes. But at the moment, the online version of the Learner’s dictionary — we only have a free version — doesn’t have this tool. But we have similar tools in the CDROM version. We have a lot of topic vocabulary and related words within a topic — synonyms, and there is a thesaurus section. For example, if you look at “slim” it will give you “skinny,” “slim,” “svelte,” and many other words and tell you what they mean.

Oxford dictionary is online, which is connected to our website. It is a free site and you can pay to get access more Oxford material.

It is a bit like a digital library and has tools like the “visual thesaurus” which is what Merriam Webster has. We have synonyms, collocations, grammar patterns, but it is more difficult in the print book to reflect that.

That’s the kind of thing people don’t realise the dictionary contains, and that is why we have to train teachers and learners in how to use this.