The Oxford English Dictionary is said to be a descriptive dictionary. What does that mean?

What does it mean for the OED or any dictionary for that matter to be "descriptive" or "prescriptive"?

Has the OED changed over the years in this regard?

  • 2
    Descriptive and prescriptive are terms which in philosophy typically refer to moral and ethical codes or behaviors. Descriptive details what 'is' a part of morally acceptable behavior. Prescriptive details a series of 'dos' and 'donts' which 'ought' to be adhered to. How and if this applies to the OED I do not know – Charles M Saunders Sep 9 at 3:08
  • Awesome! I think by this definition the distinction seems perfectly applicable to the OED. – Eddie Kal Sep 9 at 6:48
  • You have multiple questions here. I think the one about whether OED has changed over the years deserves its own post, and this one should only be limited to "descriptive" vs. "prescriptive" – Gallifreyan Sep 9 at 11:11
  • @CharlesMSaunders if you'd like, you could post that as an answer. Comments get lost all the time, and it'd be a shame if a useful answer in a comment got deleted in some cleanup. – Gallifreyan Sep 9 at 11:15
  • @Gallifreyan I am asking if it has changed its descriptive or prescriptive stance. – Eddie Kal Sep 9 at 12:53

The OED has been largely descriptive since its inception, although its usage notes have been happy to label certain usages as "incorrect". It documents through quotation how the meanings of words have developed over the years. That said, because of biases in the editorship towards literary sources, it hasn't always completely reflected the language in its earliest incarnations. With the digitization project that led up to the OED2, some of this was corrected but not all. Probably the best description is that it's descriptivist but with culturally conservative biases.

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.