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Familiariarity breeds contempt: on the use of 'well-known' in OED.

Having recently consulted OED for some research I was engaged on, I came across the denotation of ass, sb.(1) a.1.: 'well-known quadruped of the horse kind'. This made me wonder if well-known is a necessary part of the definition or the added information, and whether well-known occurs more frequently than this one isolated example.

The OED on Compact Disc reveals that well-known is used 144 times in as many entries.(1) Apart from a few occurrences as a meaningful part of the denotation - compare familiar, a. A.6.: '. . . well-known' - most instances reflect value-judgements. As such, they do not add anything to an understanding of the word in question. Therefore, it is useful to reconsider the usage of well-known in most, if not all of these 144 instances. Another factor involved is the fact that OED claims an international audience rather than just speakers of British English. This brings with it certain geographical and climatic considerations.

Well-known as a value-judgement features in a number of definitions. The entry elm sb. 1., for example, reads: 'the name of well-known trees belonging to the genus Ulmus . . .'. It cannot be assumed that it is generally known what an elm is, what it looks like, what the shape of its leaves is, what its genus is, and so on. Hazelnut has the following denotation: 'the nut of the hazel, a well-known fruit'. Again it is arguable to what extent the hazelnut is familiar to the user of OED. Moreover, as is evident from these examples, well-known does not add anything essential to our understanding of what elm and hazelnut denote. It remains unclear what is to be done with thousands of other words which could also represent well-known phenomena to people in certain parts of the world: the ash, the beech, the elm, the locust-tree, and the oak are all 'well-known trees' of some kind, for some reason the birch and the chestnut are not.

Outdated usage of well-known is seen in the denotation of cockroach: '. . . a well-known large dark-brown beetle-like insect'. The illustrative quotations are from 1634 until 1859. This entry has never been changed since James Murray decided that cockroaches were well-known, in the Scriptorium perhaps. It is very likely that James Murray was right in his time and place, but nowadays cockroaches are no longer that well-known - although one may occasionally (and perhaps increasingly) encounter them, as recent experience has taught me.(2)

Geography and climate need to be taken into account as well. Of all 144 denotations, well-known occurs 34 times in botanical and 26 times in zoological entries respectively. It is probable that OED is used in English speaking countries where an ass is not a 'well-known quadruped of the horse kind', nor the thrift, sb.(1) 4.b., a 'well-known sea-shore and alpine plant bearing rose-pink, white, or purple flowers on naked stems growing from a dense tuft of grass-like radical leaves'. Next to these samples of the local wildlife that must have surrounded the compiler, there may be objects or concepts which are not well-known in other parts of the world, such as the Dunciad: 'name of a well-known poem by Pope'.

For these reasons, that is, meaninglessness, outdated usage, geographical and climatic factors, it is senseless to retain well-known; unless it is a meaningful part of the denotation. The role of well-known should, therefore, be reconsidered in preparing the third edition of OED.


1 J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (eds), The Oxford English Dictionary on Compact Disc (Oxford, 1992).

2 North American users of OED are likely to think cockroaches, cf. s.v. roaches, well-known, as extended experience in New Haven has taught me. [E.G.S.]
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Author:Chardonnens, L.S.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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