Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



Facelift for an old friend: the reinvented OED

James Murray, Lexicographer James Murray, lexicographer, at work on the dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of those rare reference titles, a reference title that not only inspired a book on the Victorian spirit that led to its creation but also a reference title that still retains its unique value in this era of easy access to reference information.

Like language itself, the OED continues to change and evolve, yet it still retains its primary mission, to be the  "… unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world."  The OED is an historical dictionary, and though you will find present day meanings of words, the focus is to detail the history of individual words, and of the language— "traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books."

So, if you want to discover the origin of the term for the unfortunate game of  beer-pong or the first use of the term faculty (in relation to your work), this is your place.

What’s new in this edition?

Historical Thesaurus:  A major new addition to this version of the OED is the Historical Thesaurus, a taxonomic classification of the majority of senses and lemmas in OED Online. According to Oxford, it is the first comprehensive historical thesaurus ever produced for any language, and contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present day.
The Thesaurus has 800,000 words and meanings in 235,000 entry categories. Readers and researchers can now discover synonyms for individual words in the OED (and then trace their development over time), and chart the linguistic progress of a chosen object, concept, or expression, with links to the OED definition of each new word. The Thesaurus can be searched directly or one can browse its three major sections (which are further sub-divided): The External World, The Mind, and Society.

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED was conceived and compiled by the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow. The work began in 1965, resulting in a print version in 2009 and now the online version.

Searching:  while one can search the OED in a variety of ways, it is also eminently easy to browse, via the Timeline, The A – Z listing, by Subject, Usage, Region, or Origin and the top 1,000 authors and works quoted in the OED.

Updating: it almost goes without saying that one of the virtues of online access to the OED is the regular updating and additions to the database. One can sign up for an e-mail "word of the day" service, recently added works are noted on the home page, and you can get updates via your RSS or Twitter feed. There is also a monthly quote, a monthly image, and a monthly timeline (which as I write this is "dress, fashion, and appearance") and a monthly word cloud from the Historical Thesaurus.

Finally, you can create an account to personalize your access and save entries and searches and quality help and tutorials are readily available.

So the next time some slugger accuses you of muckerism or a student attempts to fish you, and your office feels a little fug, and you want to have a blind man’s holiday, just have a glass of Adam’s ale and a larf.


Ed Tallent
Head, Reference and Instruction