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How to Read a Word

By Elizabeth Knowles


When I began working for Oxford Dictionaries over thirty years ago, it was as a library researcher for the Supplement to OED. Volume 3, O–Scz, was then in preparation, and the key part of my job was to find earlier examples of the words and phrases for which entries were being written. Armed with a degree in English (Old Norse and Old English a speciality) and a diploma in librarianship, I was one of a group of privileged people given access to the closed stacks of the Bodleian Library. For several years the morning began with an hour or so consulting the (large, leather-bound volumes of the) Bodleian catalogue, followed by descent several floors underground to track down individual titles, or explore shelves of books on particular topics. Inevitably, you ended up sitting on the floor leafing through pages, looking for that particular word. The hunt could sometimes be frustrating—occasionally you reached a point where it was clear that you had exhausted all the obvious routes, and only chance (or possibly six months’ reading) would take you further. But it was never dull, and the excitement of tracking down your quarry was only enhanced by the glimpses you had on the way of background information, or particular contexts in which a word had been used. Serendipity was never far removed.

The purpose, of course, was to supply the lexicographers working on the Supplement with the raw material on which the finished entry in its structured and polished form would be based. Not all the information you gained during the search, therefore, would appear in the finished entry, and some of the contextual information (for example, other names for the same thing at a particular period, or even the use of the word by a particular person) was not necessarily directly relevant. But that did not mean that it often wasn’t interesting and thought-provoking for the researcher.

At the time (the late 1970s) research of this kind was carried out in what we would now call hard copy. Entries in the library catalogue might lead to a three-volume eighteenth-century novel, or the yellowed pages of a nineteenth-century journal or newspaper. It followed, therefore, that someone who wanted to research words in this way needed what I had the luck to have: access to the shelves of a major library. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, all that has changed. We still (of course, and thankfully) have excellent dictionaries which can be our first port of call, and we still have library catalogues to guide us. But these resources, and many others, are now online, allowing us to sit in our own homes and carry out the kind of searches for which I had to spend several hours a day underground. With more and more early printed sources becoming digitally available, we can hope to scan the columns of early newspapers, or search the texts of long-forgotten, once popular novels and memoirs. Specialist websites offer particular guidance in areas such as regional forms of English.

The processes for searching in print and online are at once similar, and crucially different. In both cases, we need to formulate our question precisely: what exactly do we want to know? What clues do we already have? A systematic search by traditional means might be compared with climbing a ladder towards an objective—and occasionally finding that the way up is blocked. There are no further direct steps. Online searching always has the possibility that a search will bring up the key term in association with something (a name, another expression), which can start you off down another path—perhaps the equivalent to stepping across to a parallel ladder which will then take you higher.

There has never been a time at which there have been richer resources for the would-be word hunter to explore, and there are no limits to the questions that can be asked—not just what a word means (or has meant in the past), or where it comes from, but questions such as who may have used it, or what other words does it resemble. Is it one of a set of words that interest you?

In writing How to Read A Word, it was enormously pleasurable both to recall the excitement and satisfaction of researching words, and to realize that modern technology has now made the possibility of such enjoyment part of the common experience.

Elizabeth Knowles became a historical lexicographer through working as a library researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, and then as a Senior Editor for the 4th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993). She has been Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th edition, 2009), and her editorial credits include What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations (2006), and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009). Her latest book is How to Read a Word.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Neal, Lauren. Lauren said: She's been working on dictionaries for OVER 30 YEARS! http://bit.ly/aEuFN6 [...]

  2. Laura Bang

    I always love looking up random words and phrases in the OED, so it’s neat to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of that process!

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