FOR John Simpson, the remarkable thing about the English language is not what is new, but what is not new. Take the terms ``acid rain'' and ``animal rights,'' for instance. Both date from the mid-19th century, though they've entered popular usage only in the late 20th century.
``A word can be just living in the streets or known only to a small band of people for years, but something happens like Chernobyl and you suddenly hear about becquerels everywhere,'' says Mr. Simpson, co-editor of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
A becquerel is a standard unit of nuclear radiation named after Antoine Henri Becquerel, the French nobel laureate who discovered nuclear radioactivity. Since the Chernobyl disaster, the term has enjoyed wider usage and appears in the new OED.
In sleuthing for new words, OED's editors concentrated on the beginning of the alphabet because work on the second half of the alphabet was fairly current from the latest volumes of the OED supplement.
``Given the amount of staff and amount of time, we reckoned we could do the top 5,000,'' says Simpson.
The former editor of the OED supplement, Robert W. Burchfield, comments that this was a bare minimum of new words for the second edition. ``These are the most obvious words that no one in his right mind could have missed, and not the results of in-depth research,'' the retired editor says.
Dr. Burchfield says the second edition is an important step forward, since the electronic version makes it possible to keep up with changes in the language as they occur. But he regrets that the published version was rushed to completion in only five years by financial considerations.
According to Burchfield, the dictionary remains largely Victorian in its definitions and quotations. He would have preferred a substantial updating with revised definitions and 20th-century quotations for the old words as well as the new, but that would have taken many more years.
``Scholarship is still the slow, day-to-day battle it's always been,'' says Burchfield. ``These are enterprises that take a man's lifetime.''
Simpson says the largest source of new entries to the second edition is computer language, followed by medicine, politics, and slang or colloquial expressions.
One colorful new computer term is ``bootstrap,'' made popular by James Joyce's phrase, but dating from 1891, ``to lift oneself up by one's bootstraps.'' As a computer term, ``bootstrap'' dates from at least 1983 and names a procedure for loading a computer program. A related term, ``to boot'' or ``to boot up,'' dates from 1962 and means to load instructions into computer memory.
``It's possible people may be able to provide earlier references than what's in the dictionary,'' says Simpson.
From the world of politics come the term ``dirty tricks,'' from revelations about CIA operations in the early 1960s; the word ``contra,'' a Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary; and the term ``People's Bureau,'' a Libyan embassy under the government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
``Disinformation'' also appears in the OED for the first time, with the earliest usage dating from 1949 in Russian, though Russian references say it was taken from French. It first appeared in English in 1955, according to Oxford scholars.
Oxford editors say the language evolves because it reflects the history of social customs and culture. There is ``breakdancing'' and ``televangelism'' as well as ``satellite broadcasting'' and ``mini-series.'' The drug culture has produced ``crack,'' a form of cocaine, and the US West Coast equivalent ``rock.''
The recent interest in spiritual healing has brought into the dictionary the term ``absent healing,'' which Oxford scholars say comes from the world of spiritualism. There is also slang from the early 1980s such as ``ditz,'' referring to a scatterbrained woman. ``This is a bit old hat now, but it was very trendy when we decided to put it in,'' says Simpson.
Among the many terms that did not make the OED were ``China syndrome'' (nuclear meltdown) and ``dink'' (a popular acronym for a married couple with double income, no kids). ``When the guillotine came down on the letter `D,' I didn't think it was fixed enough in the language,'' says Simpson. ``But the goal posts are changing all the time and if I were asked today, I would probably include it.''