Bring It On Home: The Oxford English Dictionary
The New York Public Library subscribes to hundreds of online research databases and electronic resources. While these resources are accessible at NYPL's research centers and branch libraries, many of them are also available to Library cardholders remotely. Over the next several weeks I'll be highlighting some e-titles that patrons can log onto from home, from work, or from school for easier access to information.
If you have a New York Public Library card and an internet connection at home, then you have access to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED is considered 'the definitive record of the English language.' Each entry includes the definition of the word, evidence of the word's earliest appearance in print, and when the word was added to the OED.
If you were to search for the word 'milquetoast' for example, you would see that the OED gives a definition of 'timid, submissive, or ineffectual person.' The first appearance of milquetoast in English was allegedly in 1931 when New York Herald Tribune printed, 'It deals with a timid purchasing agent for a drug company who casts off his Casper Milquetoast complex when a quack physician tells him he only has three months to live.'
But what happens if someone finds an earlier mention of milquetoast elsewhere? As a way to limit errors in dating citations, the OED recently launched Appeals, a blog which asks the general public to find earlier mentions of specific words. As of this writing, the OED is asking for help locating earlier citations of backwash, oojamaflip, Hold 'Em, and heart attack on a plate. (You can see the results of their Long Island Iced Tea appeal here.)
While the Appeals blog may be a new venture, appeals to the general public for help with definitions and citations is not. In 1879, James Murray, the first editor of the Dictionary published An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public to Read Books and Make Extracts for the Philological Society's New Dictionary, which solicited help from volunteers to read texts and mark passages on quotation slips for entry into the Dictionary. (The slip above, from the OED archives, is J.R.R. Tolkien's 'walrus' contribution.) The first edition of the OED was published in parts between 1884 and 1928, with a complete 10-volume set published in 1928, 13 years after Murray's death.
The online version of the OED provides additional ways to track words, citations, and quotes. The Sources section lists the top 1,000 sources of quotes in the Dictionary. For example, Scientific American (which you can also access from home with a NYPL card via American Periodicals), is the 36th most frequently quoted source in the Dictionary, with 202 quotes serving as first evidence of a word in print. Among those first citations: gas tank (1852), download (1977), piano leg (1852), and vulcanizing (1849).
Crowd-sourcing at its best.
For more information on the history of Oxford English Dictionary:
- Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman. (Harper Perennial, 2005).
- Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: the story of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Katherine Murray's Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (Yale University Press, 1977).
- The Dictionary of National Biography (also available online from home) has a detailed, but short, biography of James Murray.
- A six-minute video on the history of the OED, which includes information on some of the 'invisible architects' of the Dictionary.