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Report on time spent with the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]

The first assignment for engl549, British poetry and its medium, taught by Jerry Farber at San Diego State University, Spring 2004.

Added by colin #442 on 2004-06-14. Last modified 2007-10-05 21:16. Originally created 2004-06-14. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World, United States, California, San Diego, College Heights
Topics: personal
: engl549

Colin Leath
English 549
2004-01-27-1929, 2004-01-29-1035

Report on time spent with the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]

I am one of those people who have collected both words and names. At the time I was doing so in an organized way, it was as easy to look up a word as typing “oed obfuscate” on a computer in a window open to a UNIX shell. This was my first time looking at the paper version, so I took the opportunity to read the prefaces about history of the project. I then looked up some words about which I had questions that are best addressed using the OED.

Reading the preface(s)

I had learned of some of the historical importance of the OED from the essay The Persistence of English, in NAEL v. II 7th ed. There was more on that here, but I did not learn whether similar efforts have been undertaken in other languages. I was surprised to find that there was a Japanese Advisory Council listed among the project participants. I read carefully the section on the conversion of the OED from a typeset format to a computer mark-up language format. This occurred in the mid 80s and was probably an early implementation of technologies (e.g., SGML) that are now more widespread. A lot of typing by people in Pennsylvania was also involved. I skipped over the section explaining how to determine how words are pronounced, though this is something I need to learn.

Using the OED

To warm up, I tried to find some words and names (Aeschylus, accupuncture, Qi, Scyppend, email, and Internet). I had to grab another dictionary to figure out what substantive meant (noun). I had acupuncture misspelled, and found it came from Latin meaning “to pierce with a needle,” and the first use occurring in 1684. Email was there, but Internet was not (there was a reference to inter-net – perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.)! The entry on Qi showed the first use as being in 1850. In 1978 there was a mention of Qi-related experiments in a letter to the journal Nature! Scyppend, a beautiful word from the first poem in NAP, was not found, although it did seem that other old English terms were in the OED.

I then focused more on how the dictionary might be used for exploration of word sense in a poem. The word shades found in line 54 of Wordsworth’s Nutting (The full poem is here):

Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch--for there is a spirit in the woods.
I thought might mean either “shady spots” or “ghosts,” although a classmate in ENGL 560B had suggested “memories,” which seems more appropriate.  There are more than two full pages of the OED devoted to the word shade. Diving in (on another day), I found several senses that could work even better. The most likely intended meaning may have been 5b:
fig. An unsubstantiated image of something real; an unreal appearance; something that has only a fleeing existence of that has become reduced to almost nothing.
Included among the citations for this sense was an 1814 use by Coleridge in “shades of the past.”

Other senses included:
2b: The darkness of the netherworld.

6a: The world of disembodied spirits

6c: Also loosely, with reference to some person or thing in the past of which a present event is reminiscent.
Although, for this last sense, the first citation was from 1880 (or was it 1818?).

I also looked for a word I had created, experienceart (art where one's medium is one's own experience), and one some of my friends made, carfree. Neither were in the 1989 edition. However, I found it good to glance over the different senses and previous uses of the words art and experience.

One question I did not take the time to address is how the words love and prove were pronounced in the past (or has it always been a case of an off rhyme?).

Overall, was reminded of how much more I have to learn about linguistics and grammar, and how nice it was to once have had access to the OED on computer. I also began to ponder how the OED can be used for tracing the introduction of new concepts into the culture of English speakers (as in the case of Qi). A related resource that can be installed for free on Windows and Linux is Wordnet (http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/~wn/ ).

Colin Leath <>    

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