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Paperless Research

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien's quotation slip for "walrus"J.R.R. Tolkien's quotation slip for "walrus"

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.)

James Murray, first editor of the OEDJames Murray, first editor of the OEDWhile 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:


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The OED gives its first citation as 1931. They are seven years (or maybe just six) off. Popular cartoonist Harold Tucker ("H.T.") Webster began drawing the occasional adventures of Caspar Milquetoast, "The Timid Soul," in 1924. Per his biographical sketch in _The Best of H.T. Webster_ (Simon and Schuster, 1953): "Mr. Milquetoast first appeared as the unnamed hero of a cartoon in the New York _World_ in 1924. It was several weeks before a second drawing in the series saw the light, and another month or two later a third picture introduced the little gentleman for the first time by the name which was to become a household word all over the world. Seven years later, Simon and Schuster published a collection of these cartoons in book form, and Webby lived to see the word 'milquetoast' listed and defined in a standard dictionary." I didn't find a place to put this information on the "Appeals" blog, so here they are.


Dear Kip, I will pass your research along to Oxford. Thanks for this valuable information! Sincerely, Rebecca Federman

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I <3 the OED!

Nice post! I hope more people will connect to the OED from home using their library cards. Love browsing the sources list, which you mentioned. I also learned a lot about the types of information you can find in the OED Online and different ways to search for words by doing the quizzes on the site: I'm a big fan of the OED Twitter feed, too, which broadcasts the OED Appeals, words of the day and other fun lexicographic stuff! Thanks!

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