The Oxford English Dictionary is an invaluable research tool for English majors. Getting the most of the OED takes some practice, though: using any dictionary requires you to think about what you’re reading, but using the OED also requires you to think about the context of what you’re reading. This extra thinking and the detailed information you can learn from the OED will pay off in better, more accurate, and more insightful analyses of the texts you study.
1) Go to the LRC’s “Research” page: http://library.georgetowncollege.edu/research.html.
2) Click the green button for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). If you’re off campus, log in using your GC username and password.
3) In “quick search,” enter the word you are looking for. (For this handout, we’ll use “mere” as an example.)
4) Determine the word’s “part of speech” in the text you are reading. Then click the link to the entry that matches the part of speech. To accomplish this step, ask yourself if the word functions grammatically in its sentence as a noun (a person, place, or thing), a pronoun (a word that replaces a noun), a verb (an action word), an adjective (a word describing a noun or pronoun), an adverb (a word describing a verb), a conjunction (a “linking” word), or an interjection (an utterance or exclamation, often of emotion, as in, “ewww,” or “alas!”). If you aren’t sure which is the right part of speech, you may need to “parse” the sentence (break it down grammatically) before you can complete this step. Do so by finding the subject and main verb and working from there.
5) Once you are confident that you know the word’s part of speech, read the whole of the first appropriate entry, looking for the meaning(s) most relevant to the word in its literary context. If none of the definitions in the first entry seems right, go back and choose the next entry and read the definitions there. Some words, like “mere,” can function as different parts of speech and also have multiple entries per part of speech: “mere” can be a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb, and there are seven entries just for the noun form of “mere,” “n. 1” through “n. 7.” Note, then, that this stage of your research requires reading and thinking and can take a little time.
6) When you have found the entry that seems right for the word you’re researching and you have found the meaning within the entry that also seems right, read and think about the examples following the definition. The examples show you the earliest dates of use for the words’ meanings. (Note that “OE” means “Old English” and sometimes appears in lieu of a date. In the example of “mere, n. 1,” the first definition given lists four examples from OE texts before giving a Middle English example from “c. 1400.” “C.” here means “circa,” or “around.”) Use the information in the examples to see whether the definition was “current” (in use) when the text you’re studying was written. (Obviously, you need to know the date of the text you are studying to complete this stage!) If a definition wasn’t current around or before the composition date of the text you’re studying, then the word can’t have had the meaning given in the definition. (Note finally that profanities and other slang words are sometimes exceptions to this rule: their histories are often much longer than the OED will allow.)
7) Click “show more” next to “Etymology” (top of entry) to learn the word’s origin and original meaning. This information tells you, for instance, if the word comes from Old English or if it comes into English from Latin (directly or via French). The etymology therefore tells you the word’s “real” meaning (its “etymon,” from Greek “etumos,” “true, actual”), which is useful to know, since authors often choose words with full knowledge of those words’ origins.