Why doesn't the OED have better coverage of mathematical terms?
October 5, 2010 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Why doesn't the OED have better coverage of mathematical terms? Is this an area they want to improve on, or have they drawn a line of obscurity somewhere that just leaves out more than I expected?

I understand that technical terms only used in very specific fields are beyond the scope of most smaller dictionaries, but reading through commentary about the OED on the OED website, I get the impression that they specifically do want to include technical jargon.

I got interested in the issue because I wanted to try my hand at making some contributions to the OED, maybe finding some old citations, drawing attention to some of the more obscure mathematical terms, or finding mathematical uses of otherwise ordinary words. I started seeing if they had entries for some seriously obscure words like clopen or oplax. They didn't have them, which didn't surprise me, so I started looking at increasingly less obscure words: comultiplication, dinatural, groupoid, comonoid, cohomology, compactify, polylogarithmic, multiset...

When they didn't have multiset, I figured there was a systematic bias here. Either they're terrible at getting technical math terms into the OED, or they don't want them in there. But I can't really figure out which it is. I'd like to help contribute here if they're just having trouble, but if multiset (a term that's at least 60 years old and very common in many different fields of mathematics, as well as in computer science) is beyond the scope of what they're interested in, then I probably shouldn't bother.

(I'd just submit some information and see what they said, but I also got the impression that the only way you'd know if they did anything with your information is if it actually appeared in the online version. It'd be nice if they could drop you an e-mail to say that they used your info, but they probably get hundreds of contributions every day and it probably just goes into a big "look at this when we get to that part of the alphabet" pile.)

Anyway, so I'm not so much interested in speculation as to why a dictionary maker might choose to leave out certain obscure technical words as to where the OED in particular has drawn the line for technical terms, especially mathematical ones.
posted by ErWenn to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I submit that your "less obscure words" are in fact quite jargony and obscure to generalists. For comparison, there are very few jargony terms from my discipline or, when they are there, they provide the common parlance version of the word rather than the specific social scientific meaning. I assure that there is no nefarious project at work here to keep mathematical terms out of the OED. Dictionaries do, in fact, have guidelines for what words make it in and don't make it in, so you might want to consult those.
posted by proj at 10:22 AM on October 5, 2010

I have not specific experience with decisions made by the OED, but I think part of the problem is that most mathematical definitions are self contained within the dictionary of mathematics, so that you can't describe mathematical objects with non-mathematical words. Each definition leads to a host of other definitions, and eventually you realize that you can't just include a few of the most "popular" mathematical terms, you have to include them all. And that's really a separate book in its own right.

Or you could take the metaphor of math as language to the logical conclusion that the OED is an English resource, not a Mathematical one.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:24 AM on October 5, 2010

Oops, apparently I missed the part where you weren't interested in speculation, sorry!
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:27 AM on October 5, 2010

proj: Perhaps I gave the wrong impression here. I don't think there's anything nefarious going on. I figured that there was probably a guideline (although for the life of me, I couldn't think of the word guideline when I wrote the question) I couldn't find, or possibly (admittedly an unlikely one) that they just weren't very good at getting the obscure technical terms that they wanted into the dictionary. I didn't even really expect this to be particular to mathematics, but it does have an unusual relationship with language (along with theoretical computer science, formal logic, and a few other fields where almost every single paper includes a new definition), so I thought that they might even have some guidelines that's peculiar to the field.

Thank you, zamboni. While I was looking around the OED site, I couldn't find any discussion of words being too obscure, although clearly, there has to be a limit. Unfortunately, even now, I don't seem to be able to find even a rough guide for how small that "very small number of people" would be. One thing that made me think that the groups of people using many of these math terms should be large enough was a comment on this page:

Dictionary editors are particularly keen to receive information about words from earlier centuries that have so far escaped inclusion: for example, words from books or manuals from previous centuries on any profession, trade, craft, or hobby with a specialized vocabulary, from building techniques to pigeon-fancying.

Now in this case, they're clearly talking about words that are both old and specialized, as opposed to those that are just specialized, but if they're interested in 19th-century pigeon-fancying terms, then why aren't they interested in 20th/21st-century mathematical terms?

Obviously, they've got their own guidelines for what counts as too obscure to be printed, but I was hoping that I'd be able to have at least a glimpse of what that is to help me consider which words they would want information about.
posted by ErWenn at 10:50 AM on October 5, 2010

Why don't you write and ask (oed3@oup.com)? I've always gotten prompt and helpful answers from them.

Also, be aware that entries beginning with A-L are seriously out of date; the OED3 rewrite began with M, so you want to look for words from M to rotness.
posted by languagehat at 12:36 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess I just assumed that I wouldn't get a prompt, helpful answer from them. Which is on the stupid side of cynical, now that I think about it. I guess I'll do that now and post back here whether I get any useful information or not.
posted by ErWenn at 12:53 PM on October 5, 2010

Well that was a bummer. I just got a link to the same page I linked here earlier. No answers at all.
posted by ErWenn at 8:14 PM on October 6, 2010

The Words of Mathematics: An Etymological Dictionary of Mathematical Terms Used in English may fill the gap. (I have not seen this book; I just came across a reference to it, although I'll check it out when I get a chance.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:23 PM on October 11, 2010

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