I’m going to start this post with one of my favorite language stories.

If I called you a “nice person” you’d feel that was a complement, right?  Ah, but that’s by today’s standard.  For Chaucer to call someone a “nice” person was to say that person was foolish, silly, or ignorant.  Both Chaucer and Shakespeare could also use it to describe someone as “wanton” or “dissolute” (think of the Prodigal Son, here).

The resource, par excellence, for exploring the past use of words in English is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Not only does this dictionary give you the definitions of words, but it will cite the word’s use in that sense as used in literature, letters, and other documents down through the years.  For many years while doing my doctoral research I had the compact OED on my shelf and consulted it frequently as I worked with Middle English and Middle Scots literature.  I should explain that the compact OED compressed the original 12 volume  into 2 and came with a magnifying glass – which you didn’t want to lose or you’d have quite a time reading the very small print.

Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The OED has a long and distinguished history as a reference tool (I’ll list of a few of the books written about it below) and now it has been “relaunched” as an online product: Oxford English Dictionary Online.  Now, not only can you search for meanings of words, you can find out which authors and publications are the most cited in the quotation examples; you can see, through the “Timelines” section, which decade/half-century had the most new words introduced into the English language; and you can search for “loan words” from other languages that have become part of the English language.  The “Historical Thesaurus” section will let you explore the changing use of a word by concept through time and language shifts . . .  

But enough of my rambling on.  Time to go play and explore.  I’ve developed a small intro “quiz.”  If you’d like to take it I have a surprise for two folks who complete the quiz correctly (random drawing from all correct entries). Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/OEDintro.  “Quiz” deadline is February 11th; surprises announced on February 13th.


Interesting Reads on the OED (BearCat links where available; Amazon where not):

Berg, Donna L. A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary. 1993.  Part II, the “Companion” includes notes on people important to the development of the OED, the sources used, and interesting facts.

Gilliver, Peter, et al. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. 2006.

Shea, Ammon. Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. 2008.

Willinsky, John.  Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED. 1994.

Winchester, Simon.  The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. 2003.

Winchester, Simon.  The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1998.