OED Online: Informing. Surprising. Delighting.  

Often without realizing it, we live in a largely unseen world of linguistic connections, that since birth, have rooted each of us directly in antiquity. Language and vocabulary, learned from our parents or families, provide connections to both our immediate, recent and far distant pasts.

High Point University Libraries provide access to over 200 databases, ranging from astronomy to zoology, and every subject beyond and between. Included in that number are a wide variety of encyclopedias and general reference resources. One that slightly defies classification is the Oxford English Dictionary Online, universally referred to as the OED.

First published in print in Oxford in 1888, the current online version of the OED provides thousands of definitions from ‘aal’ (a red dye made from the roots of a Central Indian mulberry tree), to ‘zyzzyva’ (a rare yellow insect found in Brazil). It might be easy to dismiss the OED simply as a means of discovering the definitions or parts of speech of words. But as we will see, the OED also provides the means to understand the DNA of the English language, including etymology (origins and history), usage of words (including dates for recorded first use), as well a historical Thesaurus, allowing us to understand the “sense” of the meaning of a word.

In his excellent book, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, Nicholas Ostler describes how when one empire conquers another, it is the language of the conqueror that dominates and survives. For example, the language of the Roman Empire was Latin, which survives in multiple forms in modern European languages, such as Italian. Latin survives in the English language, in part, because it was the language of lawyers, scholars and doctors from antiquity to the middle ages, and beyond. We still see Latin in many contemporary English medical words, such as ‘appendix’, ‘trachea’ and ‘thorax’.

J. Godlee. “An Atlas of Human Anatomy: Thorax.” (Artstor)

When William of Normandy (1028-1087), also known as William the Conqueror, successfully invaded England in 1066, he became King William I.  He spoke only his native language, Norman French, and did not speak Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxon country he was invading. Ostler vividly describes how William’s invasion forced these two languages together, ultimately creating the English language as we know it today.

King William continued to speak Norman French after the invasion. But the language of the peoples he conquered, Old English, is mostly comprised of word-forms drawn from Scandinavia and northern Europe. The first recorded use of the noun ‘fortnight’, was over 1,000 years ago, long before it was the name of a contemporary video game, and is a contraction of the Old English phrase, “féowertýne niht”  (“Fourteen nights”, or two weeks).

Bayeux Tapestry (Artstor)

King William also brought a third language into modern mainstream English. The language of his lawyers and court officials was Latin, which is how the English noun ‘mortgage’ survives today. The ‘etymology’ shows us how the word came into modern English from the Latin word ‘mortgagium’, via Old French. The OED also provides other details on the word in question, including: pronunciation, forms of the word, how often it is currently used, as well as word origins.

Nicholas Ostler describes how for the 20 years following King William’s invasion of England in 1066, Old English and Norman French co-existed as two largely separate language traditions. The English language was formed from their combined vocabularies as well as being mingled with the Latin language of the much earlier Roman Empire. This is why English is known as the “language of poets”, because it offers the choice of so many duplicate words meaning the same thing, having approximately twice the number of words as any other modern language. This allows poets an infinite choice in expressing—that which is often—inexpressible.

Plato (Artstor)

Portrait of Percy B. Shelley (Artstor)

Every language dictionary records the way a language is currently being used. However, the OED Online, while providing us with multiple definitions of words, goes further, by recording changing uses for the same word over time. Sometimes the changing historical uses of words can be surprising. The word ‘pandemic’ is much on our minds in 2020. Coming from the ancient Greek, and used as an adjective, the OED defines pandemic as:

 “Of a disease: epidemic over a very large area; affecting a large proportion of a population.”

But the OED also shows us a second definition of pandemic, that is different from what we might currently expect the word to mean:

“Of or relating to physical or sensual love (as opposed to spiritual or divine love).”

It is this second definition of pandemic that the English poet, novelist and classics scholar, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) uses when translating Plato (c.427-347 BCE) from the original Greek:

“That Pandemic lover who loves rather the body than the soul is worthless.” (Plato).

Written over 2,500 years ago, the OED Online shows us time and again, that the sheer variety of the English language has a lasting power to inform, surprise and delight.

By Andrew Fair – Evening Reference Librarian