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The OED Redefines “Information” Yet Again

The entry for information in the Oxford English Dictionary always makes good reading. It’s substantial: close to 10,000 words long. I see it has changed again.

The last time I looked, the Number One definition was “The imparting of incriminating knowledge.” Excellent! As far as I’m concerned, they could stop right there. Of course, the relevant citations mostly came from early English law texts—Rolls of Parliament from the time of Edward IV, that kind of thing. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind.

But no longer. This definition has been quietly demoted. Maybe the lexicographers thought it was too quaint. Now the Number One definition of information is “The imparting of knowledge in general.” I guess it’s hard to argue with that.

Many other important senses remain, of course. There’s the modern, scientific one, due to Claude Shannon (“a mathematically defined quantity divorced from any concept of news or meaning; spec. one which represents the degree of choice exercised in the selection or formation of one particular symbol, message, etc., out of a number of possible ones …”). And the sentimental favorite, the true and venerable meaning of the word, Number III.7: “The giving of form or essential character to something.” As in J. Sharpe, 1630:

The soule or spirit doth giue information, or operation to the whole body, and euery part thereof.

Never mind that it’s “Now rare.

Does this tinkering have a back story? I’ll try to find out.


  1. ilse maria zalaman says

    tiny tidbits are can be amusing even without a back story especially Claude Shannon’s informative description of information.

  2. RandCraw says

    Maybe I’m a sentimentalist, but I like Sharpe’s take. I hear too that numerous theoretical physicists now see information as more fundamental to the Firmament than matter or energy. “Sharpe’s Prescience” perhaps?

  3. says

    Disclosed by another Edward (MDCLXVIII, missed counting on which rank this Edward is!) of our time, so we developed the right ongoing advanced Tool of Inform-ing, the Inform-ation Technology! It nowadays makes (more) sense specially after NSA’s revealed motive for Inform-mation. So well deserved again the number one definition of “The imparting of incriminating knowledge” for the entry: “Information”.

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