Though vegans may disagree, fishing has always seemed to me to be a fairly peaceful and innocent pastime, sitting all day by the water waiting for fish to bite. There has always been a figurative meaning of the verb too, of course, as we can see in the entry in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

fish for

And this meaning of ‘looking for something’ is extended to ‘trying to get something’, in the phrasal verb fish for something:

fish for sth

The deep waters of the Internet, though, provide a rich fishing ground, and a whole array of new fishing techniques has been spawned (spawning is, of course, how fish reproduce).


Almost as soon as people started to spend a large part of their lives online, it seems that other people began to devise ingenious ways of getting hold of their money. And so the catfish was born. A catfish is a type of fish, but in the murky world of online dating, it is someone who pretends to be someone else, perhaps using the picture of a model, in order to ‘catch’ their victim. If we look at the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that this is the second meaning given:


But where does this use of the word come from? According to the American TV documentary (2010) that led to the eponymous American TV series which films real-life cases of catfishing, it originated in the practice of transporting live cod caught in the icy waters of Alaska for sale in China. The cod would become lethargic and their flesh would lose its texture, and so catfish were added to the tank to nibble the cods’ tails and keep them lively. It may be more likely, though, that it refers to the practice in restaurants of passing off the cheap and plentiful catfish as a more expensive fish.

Soon after the noun catfish acquired its new meaning, we started to see the verb ‘to catfish’. According to our corpora showing data from the first decade of the century, this meaning was unknown before the coming of the TV show, with all examples related to fishing:


By 2019, though, the data tells a very different story, with most of the much larger number of examples showing the new meaning:


Catfishing apart, fishing for compliments is something more insecure people have always done, and in the world of social networking, where it now seems to be obligatory to have thousands of ‘friends’, this has led to the phenomenon of ‘sadfishing’, the practice of exaggerating your personal problems in order to generate sympathy. Media reports suggest that sadfishing is yet another threat to the mental health of young people, perhaps playing a role in the increase in online bullying.

Looking at other new terms connected with fishing, what about the homophone phishing? Here the word seems to have been given a new spelling, to distinguish it from good old fishing. Phishing is the practice of tricking people by email or on the Internet, getting them to give away their identity, bank details, etc. The first citation according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1996, at the very dawn of the Internet; the example given is “You could go phishing for passwords (not that I do it or recommend it)”.

Phishing quickly became part of our everyday language, spawning  spin-offs like spear phishing, where the ‘fish’ are individually targeted, with emails sent from known or trusted senders in order to make the phishing attempt more convincing and the fish more likely to swim into the net.

Who knows what other new fishing techniques our online lives will spawn?

Mark Temple worked as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America before becoming an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


Wind the clock back twenty years and most people, except perhaps a small proportion of vegans, would have described themselves as either vegetarian or, in the vast majority of cases, simply somebody who doesn’t exclude any major food groups. In recent years, however, eating habits and attitudes have changed considerably, and as a result, a flurry of new words have come into use.

One of these words is freegan. A freegan is a person who only eats food that they can get for free and that would usually be thrown out or wasted:

He is a freegan who claims to have subsisted on a largely Dumpster-based diet for a decade.

Maybe it’s time to give the freegan lifestyle a try.

shutterstock_344303615As well as freegan lifestyle, corpus evidence shows that freegan is commonly used as a modifier in a number of other expressions. You can be part of a freegan community or the freegan movement, get a freegan box (= a box containing food that would otherwise be wasted), go to a freegan restaurant, and even have a freegan wedding.

Dumpster diving, which appears in a Culture note at Dumpster™ in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, is a term that often crops up in the same context as freegan and is soon to be added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. This is the practice of taking things such as clothing, furniture and food from skips (BrE) or Dumpsters (NAmE) so that it can be used again:

Freegans are best known for recovering discarded food from commercial establishments, a practice known as ‘Dumpster diving’ […]

Some freegans and Dumpster divers are motivated by the desire to be eco-friendly and to participate as little as possible in the established economic system, while others simply want to save money.

From a linguistic perspective, freegan is a portmanteau word as it is formed by combining two words – free and vegan. The verb freecycle, derived from the name of an online service, also relates to the idea of minimizing the amount we consume as a society. A combination of the words free and recycle, it means to give something used or unwanted away as opposed to selling it or throwing it away, especially using the internet. Flexitarian is another portmanteau word that describes somebody who follows a particular type of diet. Flexitarians are ‘flexible vegetarians’ in the sense that they sometimes eat meat or fish, but usually avoid these types of food.

Many people are now embracing clean eating, which means eating only certain foods with the aim of becoming or staying healthy (see the New Words blog from April 2018). Other terms used to describe dietary practices that have recently gained in popularity include fruitarian, a person who eats only fruit, and pescatarian, somebody who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish – both formed on the same model as vegetarian; and locavore, a person who mainly eats food that is locally grown or locally produced, which follows the same pattern as carnivore, herbivore and omnivore.

Perhaps you’re a vegan freegan or a flexitarian locavore, or maybe you’re a plain old omnivore – whatever the case, there’s no denying that vocabulary we use to describe our eating habits reflects the fact that we’re becoming ever more mindful of what we put on our plates. Of course, people still change their dietary habits for health reasons or out of concern for animal welfare, but the focus seems to be shifting. The common denominator across most recent dietary trends is the desire to protect the environment. And as more and more of us choose to adopt a diet for a healthy planet, watch this space for more new terms to describe what people include or exclude from their diet (I’m looking at you, cheagan and veggan!*).

* cheagan = a ‘cheating vegan’, who usually eats vegan food, but sometimes eats meat, fish, dairy products or eggs; veggan = a person who avoids all of the foods that a vegan doesn’t eat, except for eggs

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011. She is a non-freegan lacto-ovo-vegetarian and an all-round lover of good food.


Over the last three years, Spread the Word has intermittently taken an interest in the linguistic ramifications of the process currently embroiling UK politics, to the exclusion of almost all other business: Brexit.

Back in May 2016, in those carefree pre-referendum days, we dared to ask: will Britain exit the European Union? (See the WOTM on Brexit from May 2016).

After the referendum, the battle lines were drawn. Soon the two sides were entrenched: Brexiteers versus Remainers (See the WOTM from April 2018 on Brexiteers, Remoaners and frenemies.)

And in March this year, as the March 29 deadline approached and then passed, we asked: what is the Irish backstop anyway? (See the WOTM on backstop from March 2019.)

This month, the Brexit-related word on everyone’s lips is prorogue. Unlike most other Brexit-related terminology, prorogue is not a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in 1419, but with a different meaning – ‘to extend in time’ – which is pretty much the opposite of its second meaning, ‘to put off for a time; to defer or postpone’, first recorded in 1453. This is the general meaning that is in use today, but its use is much more specific and restricted: to end a session of parliament, but without dissolving it and calling new elections.

I actually first came across the term prorogue over 30 years ago, while researching my A level history project on the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII was a man who liked to get his own way and, as a sixteenth-century monarch, he was immensely powerful and did not scruple to use Parliament for his own personal and political ends.

In the seventeenth century, Charles I had a less productive relationship with Parliament, frequently disagreeing with it, until in 1629 he prorogued it and simply ruled without Parliament for eleven years. In 1640 he summoned Parliament again because he needed its consent to raise taxes for a war with Scotland. However, the Long Parliament refused to do his bidding, leading to the outbreak of the English Civil War, a period of great turmoil and bloodshed for the whole country, which ended most unhappily for Charles when he was convicted of treason and executed in 1649.

015aThat’s all history now, of course, and prorogue might seem like a term that only belongs in the history books, but it is actually more common as an action than you might think. It is still only the queen or king who can prorogue parliament but in modern times she or he always does so at the request of the prime minister. The present Queen has prorogued parliament nearly every year throughout her 67-year reign. It is the normal way to end a session of parliament before beginning a new one with the Queen’s speech outlining a new legislative programme. The prorogation lasts only a few days and is so normal that we don’t even talk about it.

This time it is different. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, asked that parliament be prorogued for five weeks between 9 September and 14 October, in order (he said) to prepare a new Queen’s speech. His critics complained that this would leave too little time for MPs to debate Brexit or scrutinize and amend the government’s Brexit policy before the current exit deadline of 31 October. The prorogation became the subject of a legal challenge in both England and Scotland. The English court ruled that it was lawful; the Scottish court ruled that it was not. It was then up to the Supreme Court of the UK to decide. On 24 September, the eleven judges of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. The Speaker of the House of Commons immediately summoned MPs back to Parliament.

Whatever happens next, it seems that the UK’s constitution is being tested. The principles and procedures by which the UK is governed have developed over many centuries. They are not written down in a single document that can be referred to in a dispute. Is it finally time for the UK to adopt a written constitution – like almost every other country in the world?

Diana Lea is a Managing Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


You may or may not have heard of FOMO. The abbreviation of fear of missing out, FOMO (pronounced ˈfəʊməʊ in British English and ˈfoʊmoʊ in North American English) is defined as “a feeling of worry that an interesting or exciting event is happening somewhere else”. It is a word that has been in common parlance since circa 2012 and was added to Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013. FOMO can affect our professional lives, making us log into our work emails outside of working hours to check that we haven’t missed anything momentous while we’ve been away, or to spend valuable time attending optional meetings “just in case” something relevant comes up. But it is with social media that FOMO is inextricably linked. Social media allows us to easily track what is happening in others people’s lives, sometimes even in real time. We are exposed to people’s posts about graduations, engagements, weddings, baby showers, new homes and swanky holidays (see our blog post on humblebrag). FOMO can prompt you to take part in things that you don’t really enjoy, to compulsively check your social media channels to ensure that you’re keeping abreast of all happenings, or to compare your own life to the lives of others. Understandably, this has a negative effect on mental health; FOMO has been linked to stress, anxiety and even depression.

Happy Girl Resting on Sofa While Reading a BookPersonally, when I first heard of FOMO, I was slightly nonplussed. The idea of worrying about what I might be missing out on while happily curled up on the sofa at home with my cat, a book and a cup of tea was baffling to me. So when JOMO entered the English language, I felt reassured that I wasn’t alone in my perspective and also relieved that there had finally been a backlash against FOMO.

JOMO (pronounced ˈdʒəʊməʊ in British English and ˈdʒoʊmoʊ in North American English) is the opposite of and the remedy for FOMO. It is the abbreviation of (you may have guessed it) joy of missing out and can be defined as the appreciation of the way you choose to spend your time, regardless of what anyone else seems to be doing. It means that not only is it perfectly OK to spend a Saturday night binge-watching your favourite television series instead of going out partying, it’s something to be celebrated.

JOMO is becoming more and more pertinent. At a recent conference, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, announced the company’s intention to bring users JOMO through the introduction of new features such as apps to track the number of times you check your phone. A school in London recently launched a #JOMO campaign to encourage pupils to spend time away from social media. It is now possible to go on JOMO retreats to learn how to be digitally healthy. There are over 100,000 instances of #JOMO on Instagram, which demonstrates a slightly odd paradox: pure JOMO happens away from our device screens, so why do we need to document it digitally with an accompanying hashtag? It could be argued that JOMO is becoming the new FOMO …

Nonetheless, JOMO still has value. Modern life can be busy, to say the least. Technology means that we are constantly connected and it is all too easy to lose yourself in the midst of a maelstrom of digital notifications. As such, over the last few years an array of concepts have sprung up to help us to reconnect with ourselves and ignore the digital hubbub. Mindfulness, self-care and self-awareness are just a few of these concepts, and JOMO is a joyous encapsulation of all three. It is about accepting and embracing the present moment, regardless of what else you could be doing; it is about turning your attention to your own well-being instead of competing with those around you; it is about taking the time to do the things that make you happy without judgement or comparison.

JOMO is the digital detox we’ve all been craving.

I didn’t get time to check Instagram yesterday , and I am feeling pure JOMO.

So if you find yourself in bed at 9pm on a Saturday with a book and a hot drink, or if your social media profile contains more photos of your pet than of exotic holidays and big celebrations, don’t let FOMO take hold  – just embrace the JOMO!

Stacey Bateman is a Development Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.


Climate change and organic have become household words, but are you familiar with a related new addition to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary?

The word permaculture (British English /ˈpɜːməkʌltʃə(r)/; North American English /ˈpɜːrməkʌltʃər/) was coined in the 1970s, and it is a portmanteau word, combining the beginning of permanent with the end of agriculture.  The OALD defines it as “an approach to life and growing food that copies the way things happen in nature in order to create ways for people to live without damaging the environment”. Many permaculture organizations promote permaculture as a way of imitating nature, reducing waste, and creating a healthier environment.


Permaculture is based on the idea of sustainability.  This can be difficult to achieve because single-use items have led to overflowing landfills.  Heavy pesticide use and monocultures have damaged biodiversity in many areas. Sometimes permaculture can help with the rewilding of some areas to encourage the return of wildlife and native plant species.

Do you know the other words highlighted below?

Terms which are now widely used include carbon footprint, which means “a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by the daily activities of a person or company”.  Microplastics are “extremely small pieces of plastic in the environment that come from consumer products and industrial waste”.

Businesses especially do not want to be named and shamed as polluters. This has led many companies to claim their products are sustainable or sustainably sourced: “involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment”. In fact, the All England Tennis Club at Wimbledon has recently installed a green wall, or living wall, at Court 1 to help promote biodiversity. This is “a structure covered in plants that can be attached to the wall of a building”.

Many other ‘green’ words begin with eco, which comes from the word ecology. Eco– is commonly used as a combining form to show that something has a connection with the environment.  Can you link these eco- words with their definitions?

A. Ecocide 1. a new town that is specially designed to make it easy for people to live there with as little impact on the environment as possible
B. Eco-friendly 2. fashionable design or clothing that is produced with concern for the environment
C. Eco-chic 3. not harmful to the environment
D. Eco-warrior 4. the destruction of the natural environment, especially when this is deliberate
E. Ecotown 5. organized holidays/vacations that are designed so that the tourists damage the environment as little as possible, especially when some of the money they pay is used to protect the local environment and animals
F. Ecotourism 6. a person who actively tries to prevent damage to the environment

The terms global heating and climate crisis are now being used in some cases instead of global warming.  Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, even schoolchildren are using new terms, such as existential crisis, and protesting to demand that governments act immediately to stop damage to the environment.  Permaculture probably can’t stop an existential crisis on its own, but if these children grow up as eco-warriors, it will be in with a fighting chance.

To learn more words related to the environment, look at Nature in the Topics lists on the OALD website:

(Answers: A-4, B-3, C-2, D-6, E-1, F-5)

Lindsey Bowden is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

Of Ironmen and goats

If you are one of the 182 million people (as of mid-June) who have seen Avengers: Endgame at the cinema, the phrase “doing an Ironman” may well conjure up an image of superheroes performing out-of-this-world feats. However, in the world of sport, Ironman has a very specific meaning – still requiring formidable strength and stamina, if not quite on the Tony Stark level.

An Ironman is a form of long-distance triathlon* consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon. The first one was held on Hawaii in 1978 and the islands are still considered to be the spiritual home of the sport. Anyone who completes an event can also call themselves an Ironman.


Extreme sports like this are now common: as well as the triathlon itself, there are the duathlon (the running and cycling bits of a triathlon), the aquathlon (swimming and running), and the ultra-triathlon (anything longer than an Ironman). Then, if just running for very long distances is your thing, there is ultrarunning and ultramarathons, the most famous example of which is the six-day Marathon des Sables.

If, like most mortals, these sports are beyond you, why not try one of these other new sports when at the beach this summer: flyboarding, where you stand on a special board, connected by a hose to a jet ski, and are propelled into the air by water forced through the hose; or if you prefer something more sedate, have a go at stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

The world of sport loves its heroes, often describing them in terms akin to superheroes, and it also loves its abbreviations. So whilst the MVP (Most Valuable Player) is awarded to the outstanding player in an individual game or team, when it comes to being rewarded for your whole career, it’s the unlikely sounding term GOAT that you should aspire to. No, not an animal with horns and a coat of hair, that lives wild in mountain areas or is kept on farms for its milk or meat, but the “Greatest Of All Time”.

* Avengers fans will know that there is a Marvel superhero character called Triathlon who had the strength of three men. He later changed his name to 3-D Man.

Patrick White is Product Director for ELT Dictionaries and Grammar. He has taught English in China and worked as a translator and dictionary editor. He can swim, ride a bike and run but has never been known to do any of them competitively, least of all in an Ironman.


Is it just me, or does it seem that there’s a lot of bad stuff in the world these days? That the daily news is full of doom and gloom?

Not only that, but things that used to be good have turned out to be bad. This may be due to the thing itself, or the way that it’s used. Single-use plastic, social media, a meat-rich diet might all have once been hailed as beneficial or a great symbol of modernity, but such things are often viewed less kindly nowadays, and for many different reasons.

But what about the other way around – can you think of any examples of things that used to be bad, but are now considered good? Things that have reformed, that have redeemed themselves?

Well, the word hack may be just such a thing. This word has evolved quite a lot over the last decades, and we can look at old editions of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to illustrate.

Here is the entry from the 3rd edition of OALD, published back in 1974:Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 3rd editionWe can see that the majority of meanings of hack refer to something bad: cutting something roughly or clumsily (including bodies – very gory!), coughing, a hard and boring job.

Now let’s fast-forward a quarter of a century to the publication of the 6th edition of OALD in the year 2000 and see what has happened to the entry for hack:file1-3The rough chopping of bodies still figures (see sense 1 above), and the computing meaning has been added (sense 3). This meaning is quite familiar to us these days – we often hear about hackers and hacking in the news, it’s one of those bad things in the news that I mentioned earlier.

And we’ve got an idiomatic newcomer in “I can’t hack it” (sense 4), used when you’re in a bad situation and you can’t cope. Still bad!

The noun still describes two bad-sounding jobs, and we’ve got some negative derivatives and compounds (hacker, hacked off, etc.).

And so as we entered the new millennium hack was still bad. But let’s bring things up to date to 2019, when we have more new meanings to include.

In addition to the old negatives, there is now a more positive computing sense for both verb and noun, referring to working quickly (although not necessarily officially or elegantly) to create something:

  • We spent the morning hacking around with HTML and building web pages.
  • I could maybe try to come up with some sort of hack to fix that bug.

And the newest meaning of the noun is undeniably positive: “a strategy or technique that you use in order to manage an activity in a more efficient way”.

So now a hack will actually make a task or an activity, maybe even your whole life, better or easier.

Have a look at these examples:

  • Another hack that will save time is to cover your side mirrors with a plastic bag when freezing rain is forecast.
  • Have you got any clever parenting hacks?
  • Why not try these genius food hacks to save time?
  • This useful website offers good lifehacks for better use of your time and your technology.

The Internet is full of hacks these days, from the best way to perfectly fold a T-shirt, to using duct tape to open tough lids (yes, honestly!), or how to create a watering can out of an empty milk container. They are always called hacks or lifehacks these days – try putting the terms in your Internet search engine and see what handy tips and tricks you can find.

So there you go folks, hack is something that used to be bad but is now good. Well, sometimes. You know, apart from the criminal activity of getting into someone else’s computer or phone, roughly cutting up things (often bodies, it seems), a bad cough, a poorly paid and boring writing job, etc. But still, it’s a chink of light in what can sometimes seem a gloomy world!

Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


There are moments in life when an everyday word isn’t enough. Sometimes you want an unfamiliar word that will add extra force to your opinion. So next time you’re stuck in bad traffic and want to let off some steam, instead of saying the traffic is awful or terrible, why not try hellacious? A word like this will make a listener or reader sit up and take notice – at least until they’ve heard it three or four times.

May 2019

In fact, according to the OED, hellacious is not actually a new word (apparently it dates from the 1930s), but in reality it has only become commonplace over the last few years. As well as describing traffic problems, it is often used for the weather (e.g. hellacious snowstorms/drought/heat) or a period of time (e.g. a hellacious week or summer). But the most common area of usage is sport. Boxing commentators may refer to a hellacious punch or a hellacious uppercut; in baseball, they talk about a hellacious pitch or a hellacious curve ball and in American football a hellacious hit. Occasionally, it even has a positive connotation:

Like I said, this is going to be one hellacious ride!

One of the things that strike you about the examples is that they are almost all from a North American, not a British, context. Hellacious is a popular word in the world of baseball, basketball, American football, but not in the world of cricket or soccer. It is only slowly crossing over into British English.

Hellacious is one of a number of ‘invented’ adjectives. In this case, the word is simply formed by adding a typical adjective ending (-acious) to the word hell. Another example is splendiferous (splendid + –ferous). In other cases, two adjectives are blended into one: for example, bodacious (a mix of bold + audacious), fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous), humongous (huge + monstrous) and ginormous (giant + enormous).

The word ginormous, which entered the language in the 1940s and originated in Britain, is well used and widely recognized, but it hasn’t achieved the same popularity as its synonym, humongous. Despite being the newest of all these adjectives (according to the OED), humongous is by far the most frequently used. Originating in 1970s America, this word is now a regular part of informal English:

‘That was great Katie,’ he said with a humongous smile.

An already huge company would become truly humongous in terms of its wealth and power.

All of these adjectives would be considered informal and are marked as such in dictionaries. However, they are not rare or unusual. So, for example, all of them (apart from splendiferous and fantabulous) are sufficiently well-established to occur in predictive text if you’re using an Apple device.

I think we can be certain that more adjectives like this will be invented but whether they will become embedded in the language is another matter. Craptacular and ridonkulous, for example, are ones whose usage remains low.

A new one that I’ve come across recently is monumentous. It has been used on more than one occasion to describe Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. I wonder if, in fact, it may simply be a slip of the tongue or the pen, but it seems appropriate (whichever side you’re on) to reach for a word that goes beyond simply monumental or momentous.

Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

What is a core vocabulary?

It’s very difficult to say exactly how many words there are in the English language because it depends how you count them and, of course, language is changing and growing all the time. But even at a conservative estimate, there are well over a quarter of a million distinct English words . That makes the task of teaching vocabulary to learners of English seem a rather daunting one.

Thankfully, Zipf’s Law comes to our rescue. This states that a handful of the most frequent words in the language account for a disproportionately large chunk of any text, either written or spoken. The top 2000 most frequent words, in particular, make up somewhere around 80% of most texts. That makes frequency a good rule-of-thumb indicator of the words we should probably focus on teaching first.

The Oxford 3000TM: then and now

With this aim in mind, the Oxford 3000 word list was first put together back in 2005. Since then, the list has been widely used by learners, teachers, syllabus designers and materials writers to help them choose which vocabulary is worth spending most time over. Fourteen years on, however, it was time for an update. The new Oxford 3000 has had a thorough revision including a new look at the criteria for inclusion and the use of new frequency data based on a much larger and more up-to-date corpus.

Ox3000 logo

Frequency vs. relevance

Whilst frequency is the guiding principle behind choosing which words to include on the list, it doesn’t quite work as a basis for selection on its own. That’s in part because there are a surprising number of words that describe basic things in the world around us and that learners would expect to learn quite early on that actually wouldn’t qualify for a top 3000 on frequency alone. So, words like apple and passport, for example, probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Thus, the new Oxford 3000 balances frequency with relevance to the average learner. As well as how common they are, the list compilers took into account whether words are typically used to talk about the kinds of themes and functional areas common in an ELT syllabus, and the types of tasks and topics needed in English exams.

A core vocabulary as a starting point

It would be wrong, however, to assume that 3000 words will be enough on their own for a learner to read and communicate successfully in English. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary, that is, a solid basis that students can build around.

At the lowest levels, words on the list are likely to make up the bulk of the learner’s repertoire. So, for an A1 learner, for example, 90% of their vocabulary might consist of basic core words. As learners progress and want to read about and express a wider range of ideas, though, while they will still rely heavily on that core, they will also need to supplement it with vocabulary from other sources. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary for learners up to roughly B2 level. By this stage, more and more of the vocabulary they acquire will reflect the unique interests and needs of each individual learner.

Click here to access the Oxford 3000, Oxford 5000 and Oxford Phrase List.

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. She’s written a wide range of ELT materials, but has a particular passion for words and always gets drawn back to vocabulary teaching. She’s worked on a range of learner’s dictionaries and other vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles.

Watch Julie’s webinar to find out more about how the Oxford 3000 and Oxford 5000 were compiled, how the words have been aligned to the CEFR to guide learners, and how you can use the word lists in your teaching.

Why do we need EAP word lists?

The EAP vocabulary challenge

If you are like me, and your English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching typically consists of a mixed group of students from a variety of language backgrounds and a variety of academic disciplines, then you know how difficult it can be to satisfy everyone’s needs. The pre-sessional PhD student who is going to go on to study cosmic black holes may get frustrated if the teacher spends a lot of time engaging with the special terminology of medicine for another student in the class. It is far more straightforward if you are teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), the special language needed for groups who share the same discipline, for example a class of marine biologists or a group of town planners.

Given the size of the vocabulary of all our academic disciplines put together, with a total specialist terminology that probably runs into tens of thousands of words, we are faced with what would seem to be an impossible task. However, thanks to the power of corpora (computer-searchable databases of written and spoken texts), we are able to establish a common core of vocabulary which is used across a wide range of disciplines, one that we can use in teaching. You may well already be aware of general English word lists for EAP that are freely available online or which have been incorporated into some of the text books you and your students use. Nonetheless, a general English word list only tells us part of the story, and we need to do more to arrive at something which will genuinely be usable and useful for our EAP students.

A common core?

Let’s consider what a common core vocabulary for EAP might look like. There are different options for exploiting corpora, and each one has PROS and CONS:

  • A straightforward frequency list going from the most frequent to the least frequent words that are shared across many or all disciplines.

PROS: Easy to produce at the click of a mouse if you have lots of academic texts stored in a computer. We can focus on different segments of the list for students at different proficiency levels.

CONS: The list will still be very long, and much of it will be common, everyday words your students already know from general English.

  • A keyword list: this tells you which words are significant and distinct in academic English, when compared with any other type of English.

PROS: More powerful and targeted than a frequency list. We can concentrate on the ‘fingerprint’ or ‘DNA’ of academic English.

CONS: It’s not immediately obvious why a word might score so highly as a keyword. ‘Terms’ is an academic keyword. Is it because universities and colleges break the year up into teaching terms, or is it something else?

  • A list of chunks: chunks are recurring patterns of words. Most corpus software can produce lists of the most frequent 2-word, 3-word, 4-word, etc. chunks in a corpus of texts.

PROS: Chunks are extremely common in all kinds of texts and are fundamental in creating meaning, for example, structuring academic arguments, linking parts of texts, etc. They take us way beyond single words.

CONS: The computer often finds chunks that are incomplete or not easy to understand out of context (e.g. in the sense that).

Is one set of lists enough?

All these different ways of approaching a common core for EAP have pros and cons, as we have seen, and in most cases, it’s true to say that the pros outweigh the cons. But there is another factor, too. Much of a student’s experience of academic life will come through speaking and listening. The students I teach typically must write essays, dissertations and reports, but they also have to attend lectures, take part in seminars and discussions and give presentations. So good academic word lists will consist of different lists for spoken and written EAP, taken from different corpora. Spoken EAP often overlaps in surprising ways with conversational English and yet is still first and foremost concerned with transmitting, creating and sharing academic knowledge. How is that achieved? The big question is: what do we learn from separating spoken and written EAP lists?

Then what?

Even if we build an ideal set of lists, the question remains as to how we can use them. Simply drilling and learning lists is not enough; the real challenge is how to harness the words, keywords and chunks to create continuous texts in speaking and writing. First comes the problem of meaning, so it will be necessary to experience and to practise the common core words and chunks in context; we may find that a particular word or chunk has developed a special meaning in one or more disciplines but not in a wide range of disciplines. It will also be important to exploit technological resources such as links between word lists and online dictionaries and other resources. No one, simple approach will deliver the results we hope to get from word lists, and an integrated approach will serve us best.

Click here for a collection of four different word lists that together provide an essential guide to the most important words to know in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP): OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon).

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Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries.

Watch Michael’s webinar to find out more about the power of corpora to create EAP word lists. See some examples from OPAL, and get some practical ideas for using the word lists in your teaching.