An ode to the OED (3)

  • From Saturday June 16 onwards (Bloomsday, as it happens), I will no longer have free access to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary because I am no longer a student and Trinity are removing my free services 🙁
  • So I thought it would be fitting to write a little about the online version of the great dictionary while I can still read it. This will not be a history or a comprehensive account of its purposes but a short explanation of what use I have got from it in my research and an explanation of a simple new convention I have devised for referencing the dictionary.
  • The OED’s best known purpose is to provide definitions of words and examples of their use in the wild, or at least in the relatively refined world of literature and newspapers etc. The original edition came out in 1928 and the second edition, published in 1989, has twenty volumes and costs £845 (sick). It contains a squillion Shakespeare quotes, a billion from Joyce, and a few zillion from Dickens, Time magazine and, like, Punch. This is in the long-standing tradition of Dr Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A dictionary of the English language which he composed alone in nine years, and, drawing on a life of bookwormery, he lashed in quotes for almost every word (here’s the hilarobant Blackadder skit).
  • The internet is perfect for such a limitless resource and all kinds of information about words can be fleshed out goodo.
  • Mostly, I have used the OED for checking up pronunciations and spelling variants. I don’t have an online copy of a dedicated English pronunciation dictionary (such as this), so whenever I need to check how the Queen says a word, I know I can rely on the OED. Furthermore, I can see if the Yanks say it differently, although there is no information about other dialects of English. The dictionary is also good for checking variation between British and American spellings, although I increasingly use Google Ngrams for this purpose.
  • However, seeing as it is an historical dictionary – recording old and obsolete, as well as present-day, usage – there are particularly good sections on each word’s etymology and its spelling history.  The etymologies will tell you if a word is classical or medieval Latin, Old or Modern French, and a whole lot more about cognate words across many languages. The word chowder, for example, does not follow the usual path for a word borrowed from French and the dictionary includes some tidbits about Breton and Newfoundland fishery. You can also track changes in a word’s spelling, so you can see that the word kangaroo used to be spelt <kanguru> or <kangooroo> and even <gamgarou>.

  • I find the etymology sections particularly useful for checking the history of morphemes. Words ending in <al> (e.g. functional and referral) are mostly derived from French and/or Latin, although the French spelling <el> has been mostly weeded out of English in favour of Latin <al>. Nevertheless, a few <-al> words arise in chemistry, including, like, ethanal and furfural. The dictionary is thus a particularly fun place to get lost in words.

Referencing the OED

  • There remains one problem which I feel plagues the field,  that of referencing the OED. All other scholarly works are diligently referenced, by author, year,  page number (hopefully), and often plenty more information. So why should this wonderful resource be different? Studies of spelling tend to be littered with mentions of the ‘immeasurable’ contribution that the OED has given to the researcher.
  • I feel that the dictionary deserves to be referenced better, partly out of respect, but mostly to allow readers to follow up a reference. If I mention that the word chowder comes from French then readers might notice something fishy as French-derived words don’t tend to be spelt that way. Apparently, the word was borrowed by fishermen in spoken contact with one another and it took some time before the word started to appear on restaurant menus. By that time, the word had assumed an English-like identity, in its pronunciation and, crucially, its spelling. Most of this information can be found at
  • Unfortunately, such a domain address is clunky so I simply retain the entry number in my reference, writing (OED 32395) in the appropriate point in the text. This is particularly useful for paper texts because online texts can be hyperlinked. So here is what you have to do. Go to the OED online – assuming you have access – and find any entry. From there, you can remove the string of grimy symbols that comes after the bit that says This is underlined in yellow in the entry above for kangaroo.  Then paste in the desired entry number, in this case 32395. Pressing return, you will get to the dictionary entry in all its glory.
  • If you were looking up the history of the word kangaroo, you would find it at OED (102472), and again, replace the entry number as appropriate.  The history of {al} words can be found at OED (4478) and the {al} chemicals are at OED (4479).
  • The value of this method is that you can find out more information than writers have provided and you can check up the veracity of their statements. Does the OED talk about chowder in restaurants? What did the aboriginal Australians really tell the white invaders about the iconic marsupial?

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