Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why We Use the O.E.D.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is an "unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of words- past and present- from across the English-speaking world" (OED). We use the OED to gain a better understanding of our etymology, to lean about phonology, and to see the history of the context in which a particular word was used, spelled, and pronounced.

156 years ago the Philological Society of London proposed to create a complete collection of the English language. The project became known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and it is still going on today. It took over 70 years to complete the first edition. The first completed volume (A-Z) was not published until 1928 and contained more than 400,000 words.

Today the OED, published in 1989, contains over 615,000 word definitions, 2,430,600 quotations, and accounts for nearly 1000 years of usage of the English language . The printed version, with all 20 volumes, has about 21,730 pages, and weighs close to 140 lbs.

To give you a better idea of its complexity and thoroughness, the entry for the word "set" alone is made up of 60,000 words, list 430 different ways to use the word. And all of that is just the verb form!

A little more than a decade ago, a digital form of the OED was published, and it is now available online where it undergoes constant updates and revisions that are published online every three months (See "What's New" page).

The online version also includes a "Reader's Guide," which includes a key to understanding the symbols used in definitions and in pronunciations. This link also includes an abbreviation list and glossary terms.

For some more advanced "how to" information, the OED features a "Guide to the Third Edition" currently in progress. This link provides information about the structure of the dictionary, the structure of definitions themselves, and how to read the etymological notes in definitions.

But more than that!

The OED also provides a video tutorial, helpful resources for students and teachers, commentaries on the English language, and behind the scene video shorts.

The fact that we have this tool available to us at our finger tips is fascinating. Developing our vocabulary is one of the best ways to develop our minds and improve our writing abilities. Having a better understanding of words allows us more freedoms and flexibility in our communication efforts.

And let's face it. Sounding smart is being smart!

Although there is an annual subscription fee of nearly $300, most local libraries provide free access to the database.(EIU students and faculty can log on through the Booth Library link).

In short: You can't go wrong when using the OED!

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