A Beginner’s Guide to the OED

-Brianna Huber

I am what you might call a “word nerd.” I love the wide range of expression the English language conveys and will never pass up an opportunity to expand my vocabulary, so when I discovered the OED, I couldn’t believe I’d gone so far through life without it. What does OED stand for, you ask? I learned a few years back that it’s how English majors refer to the Oxford English Dictionary.

What sets the OED apart from most other dictionaries is that it doesn’t just tell you the definition of a word–it gives a word’s etymology, different forms or spellings, and various definitions across time along with examples of its usage. For instance, the adjective “gay” hasn’t always been used to refer to someone who is homosexual. If I look it up in the OED, I see that it is the root word for “gaiety” or cheerfulness. It first appeared during the second half of the 11th century and meanings included “beautiful,” “lively,” “showy,” “lewd,” and “lighthearted.” The “gay science” referred to the art of poetry as early as 1693. The modern use of the word “gay” didn’t establish itself until the 1960s.

I feel like the notion of “gay” once meaning “happy” is fairly common knowledge, but the OED really gets interesting when I go to look up a fairly common word and find a history that I wasn’t expecting. The next thing I know, I’m word hopping from page to page and an hour has passed. I find that modern slang words tend to be particularly interesting. For example, the only definition listed for “jizz” is “the characteristic impression given by an animal or plant.” The first recorded usage was in 1922. With an innocuous definition like that, I wonder how the word attained its current usage.

While that example is fairly simple, some words have a much more rich and varied history. One notable example is—forgive me for saying this—the word “faggot.” We all know how the word is used now, but it originally referred to a simple bundle of sticks or twigs. It can also be used as a verb, referring to the act of bundling a group of sticks together. What I find particularly interesting though, is that the word has a connection to heresy. The phrase “fire and faggot” once referred to heretics being burned alive. I have to wonder if there’s a connection between this use of the word and its modern usage in condemning the LGBT community. Is calling someone by that name indirectly calling him a heretic? (I could go and look up the word “heretic” now, but I’ll leave that to you.)

The English language is a motley tongue that spans centuries and has borrowed words from almost every language imaginable. Work started on the OED in 1857 with the intention of creating a record of all the words that make up the English language from the time of its earliest records to the present day. The OED is still added to on a regular basis. As of November 30, 2005, the OED contains more than 301,100 main entries (as opposed to word variants).

The OED is available in print in the reference section of most libraries, and if you are a University of Oregon student, you can access the online edition for free through the library website with your Duck ID. I encourage all of you to find words that interest you, crack open the OED, and see where it takes you.

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