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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Of microbes and Madagascar

Microbes are everywhere. On door knobs, in your mouth, covering the New York City Subway, and festering on the kitchen sponge. The world is teeming with microbes—bustling communities of invisible organisms, including bacteria and fungi. Scientists are hard at work cataloging the microbial communities of people, buildings, and entire ecosystems. Many discoveries have shed light on how culture and behavior shape these communities.

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Christmas on 34th Street: a history of NYC department stores [excerpt]

Each year, department stores in New York City decorate their windows with ornate holiday displays. Taking on festive themes with dazzling lights, crystals, and figurines, these stores aim to entice shoppers and encourage passers-by to get into the holiday spirit. In the following excerpt from Greater Gotham, Mike Wallace discusses the history of these famous department stores and their connection to the economy of New York City.

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Newton and the perils of the imagination

In the 17th century, there were two contradictory attitudes to the imagination or ‘phantasy’. For many it was valued as the source of wit and invention; but for others it was the basis of deception, superstition, and mental illness. It was John Calvin, a century earlier, who had warned that the mind was a dungeon and a factory of idols. English puritan writers followed in his wake, cautioning against the seductive tendencies of the unregenerate imagination

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Race, gender, and flash photography

The cover of Flash! shows a smiling African-American woman, who holds a Graflex Speed Graphic camera. The flash bulb, invented at the very end of the 1920s, was rapidly adopted by both professional and amateur photographers. The star of this particular image, however, is less the photographic equipment than the woman who holds it. She signals the intertwined presence of race, gender, and flash photography.

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The word “job” and its low-class kin

This post is in answer to a correspondent’s query. What I can say about the etymology of job, even if condensed, would be too long for my usual “gleanings.” More important, in my opinion, the common statement in dictionaries that the origin of job is unknown needs modification. What we “know” about job is sufficient for endorsing the artless conclusions drawn long ago. It would of course be nice to get additional evidence, but there is probably no need to search for it and no hope to dig it up.

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A holy revolution

With hundreds of churches built, rebuilt, or restored in the nineteenth century, they can be found nearly everywhere today. Out of thousands of possible choices, below are five characteristic specimens — four small churches and one large synagogue — that explain Victorian belief.

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Three millennia of writings – a brief history of Chinese literature

Chinese scholars traditionally have considered the Han fu-rhapsody, Tang shi-poetry, Song ci-song lyrics, and Yuan qu-drama, as the highest literary achievements of their respective dynasties. However, Chinese literature embraces a far wider range of writing than these four literary genres. Explore a treasure trove that offers rich information about Chinese society, thought, customs, and social and political movements

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Allowing the past to speak

Beginning in January a new editorial team will take over the OHR, bringing in some fresh voices and new ideas. Before we hand over the reins, we asked the new team, composed of David Caruso, Abigail Perkiss, and Janneken Smucker, to tell us how they came into the world of oral history. Check out their responses and make sure to keep an eye on our social media pages in the coming weeks for more.

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Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts. Act 2, Scene 2

See the previous posts with the same title. We are approaching the end of the drama. It will be a thriller without a denouement, a tragedy without catharsis, but such are most etymological dramas. Putting the kibosh on the origin of a hard word or phrase is an almost impossible endeavor. Heraldry for etymologists and a note on unlikely candidates – It has been said, and for good reason, that, whenever people played cards, every man whose unpopularity made him hated by the people and bearing as arms nine lozenges could be referred to as the curse of Scotland.

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Test your knowledge of the English legal system

The English legal system has a long history of traditions and symbolism. Do you know your periwigs from your powdered wigs, your judicial dress from your barrister’s robes, and your green bags from your gavels? While some of the quirks and traditions of the English legal system may seem archaic, even bizarre, they from part of the fundamental constitution of UK culture and are therefore of relevance to anyone with an interest in it.

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1917: A reading list

In order to fully understand key moments in history, it is important to review the culture that created them. As 2017 draws to a close, we have compiled a reading list that will help to contextualize history from 100 years ago. Transport yourself to a truly world-changing year in our shared history — 1917 — with any of the following titles.

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10 great writers from China’s long literary history

China is one of the world’s oldest countries, and its long history goes hand in hand with its rich literary tradition. The names Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu are well-known around the world, but many of China’s poets, philosophers, and novelists remain hidden gems to outsiders. Take a look at the list below and discover 10 of China’s greatest writers, from the Zhou dynasty to the 20th century.

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The legacies of the “Russian” Revolution(s): World War II

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This event has often been reduced to the urban upheaval that gripped Petrograd (St Petersburg) throughout 1917 and which culminated in the Bolsheviks taking power in October. The Soviet Union traced its legitimacy back to this event, and many other aspiring revolutionaries were inspired by it too—some still are to this day.

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Major medical incidents [timeline]

Major incidents are defined as any incident ‘that requires the mobilisation and use of extraordinary resources’; with the NHS further expanding the definition of such events as ‘any incident where the location, number, severity, or type of live casualties requires extraordinary resources’. There have been many major incidents throughout history that have required an ‘extraordinary’ response by emergency services, medical personnel, and government bodies.

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Misattributed quotations: do you know who really said it? [quiz]

The seemingly simple task of asking who said what has perhaps never been more difficult. In the digital age, quotations can be moved around, attributed, questioned, re-appropriated, and repeated in the blink of an eye. If someone is “widely quoted” as saying something and it sounds more or less right, many people take this to be sufficient proof of the quotation’s origin. With that said, do you really know who said what?

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