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Crowdsourcing and the Oxford English Dictionary: One Sandwich Short of a Picnic

January 5, 2013

Remember the story of Tom Sawyer painting the fence. He didn’t want to do it himself so he got all the other neighborhood kids to do it by making it seem like a rewarding activity. That’s crowd sourcing, getting other people to do your work for you. And if you get enough people on board, then they can do stuff that you could never hope to do yourself, no matter how much time you had.


The concept of crowd sourcing has been around for a long time, and maybe it started when a caveman figured out that he could start a fire quicker by getting a bunch of people to start rubbing sticks together until one of them caught a flame. IThe Oxford English Dictionary used volunteer readers to review and catalog the thousands of words that eventually appeared in its books. James Murray (he might have made a good Santa, see below), the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, issued his famous “Appeal to the English-speaking public to read books” in 1879, asking readers to send word-evidence from those books to help him make his dictionary As just a few more well known examples, in 1916, Planters Peanuts held a contest asking its customers to develop the company’s logo. And ever since 2001, Wikipedia was created as an online encyclopedia that has been built and maintained using crowd sourcing. I didn’t see that one coming. The Wikipedia continues to amaze me.

And the story of crowd sourcing and the dictionary just goes on and on. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is now going back to the well in developing the next version of the dictionary ( On BBC Two, the program “Balderdash & Piffle” – a word-hunt show, produced in collaboration with the O.E.D. helps the dictionary’s editors find the earliest usages for words and phrases such as “going bananas”, “regime change,” “sick puppy” and “identity theft.” ( There’s even a Wikipedia page for “regime change” ( I guess that the OED editors don’t think it’s a sufficiently good source.

“One sandwich short of a picnic” was one of the phrases that was crowd sourced by the OED and here’s the result:

colloq. (orig. Austral. and N.Z.). Usu. depreciative. short of a – and variants: lacking in common sense or intelligence, mentally deficient, slightly crazy; generally expressed in terms of some (specified) deficiency in a desirable or standard quantity of something, as a brick short of a load, a few sandwiches short of a picnic, sixpence short of a shilling, etc. See also a shingle short s.v. SHINGLE n.1 1b, and cf. to have a tile loose s.v. TILE n.1 1g, not all there s.v. THERE adv. 12b.

So there you have it, next time some drunken Aussie calls you one sandwich short of a picnic at your favorite seedy bar, you can take it outside.

The OED now runs to 20 volumes and apparently it is going to get 30% bigger in the next edition. The world needs a bigger dictionary! Some of the entries haven’t been touched since 1884 when the dictionary was first published. (work on the dictionary actually started in 1857, so it took 27 years to produce the first edition. Here’s what the first edition looks like in case you wanted to find yourself a copy. We had a lot of old books at home when I was a kid including a complete set of the works of Joseph Conrad, but I can’t remember if the first edition of the OED was amongst them.


The second edition was way bigger, but at least they had something to start from.


According to the publishers (, “it would take a single person 120 years to “key in” text to convert it to machine readable form which consists a total of 59 million words of the OED second edition, 60 years to proofread it, and 540 megabytes to store it electronically. As of 30 November 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary contained approximately 301,100 main entries. Supplementing the entryheadwords, there are 157,000 bold-type combinations and derivatives; 169,000 italicized-bold phrases and combinations; 616,500 word-forms in total, including 137,000 pronunciations; 249,300 etymologies; 577,000 cross-references; and 2,412,400 usage quotations. The dictionary’s latest, complete print edition (Second Edition, 1989) was printed in 20 volumes, comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages. The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set, which required 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the OED3 in sequence starting from M, the longest entry became make in 2000, then put in 2007.” Aren’t you so glad you now know this stuff? Maybe you could pick up a librarian with these kinds of lines.


Now crowd sourcing is being used almost everywhere it seems. I recently came across a discussion of how to use crowd sourcing in marketing, for instance ( Welcome to the brave new world of getting VERY LARGE fences painted!

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