Using the Oxford English Dictionary for Close Reading

The Oxford English Dictionary is the most important dictionary of the English language: it is an invaluable research tool for English majors and you should get into the habit of using it every time you close read. Using 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:

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.

Example and Demonstration

Let’s put the above steps into action and see what we can learn when we use the OED for close reading. For the sake of demonstration, we’ll use a passage from everyone’s favorite Old English epic, Beowulf. Describing Grendel’s mother’s home, the poet1 writes:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men. (1362-8)

Much could be said about these lines, but we’ll focus on a single word so we can concentrate on how to use the OED.

First, choose an interesting word from the passage, like a word you don’t know or one that seems familiar but appears to be used in an unusual way.

We’ll use a good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon word — “mere” — as our example to figure out what the OED can add to our comprehension and interpretation of a literary text. (Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, quoted above, retains the passage’s original Old English word “mere” for Grendel and his mother’s home [1364, 1367], so we can safely proceed with close reading. Do realize, though, that close reading only truly “works” when you are analyzing a text in its original language.) What’s a “mere,” exactly? As it turns out, the answer is complicated. The OED will help us interpret the Beowulf-poet’s nuanced vocabulary choice.

Next, determine the word’s part of speech and read some definitions.

From literary context we can tell that “mere” has to be a noun (the right part of speech for places). If we read the entry for “mere, n. 1″ we see that mere can mean “sea.” We also see that Beowulf is given as an example of a poem using the word in this way:

OE    Beowulf 1362   Nis þæt feor heonon milgemearces, þæt se mere standeð.

It seems logical to conclude that Grendel and his mother live in the sea. But if we read down the entry list, we see that a second possible meaning is a pool or body of standing water, like a lake, and that, again, this sense of the word is found in Beowulf (in the very section of the poem we’re analyzing; 1362, above and below, refers to the line number).

OE    Beowulf 1362   Nis þæt feor heonon milgemearces, þæt se mere stanðeð.

So which one does the poet mean — the sea or a lake? What if we allow both possibilities to exist simultaneously, even if that seems strange at first, and see what happens?

If we allow the word to have both meanings, it could indicate that Grendel and his mother live in an inland body of water connected (literally or figuratively) to the sea. As you know, England is an island; even though the Grendelkin live in Denmark, the poet may have English meres (see picture, right) in mind. Maybe Grendel and his mother live in a pool that sometimes connects to the sea (depending on the season, weather, or tide) but that also sometimes stands separate, or maybe their mere connects to the sea underground, or in some other way. (For the record, scholars have long debated on the precise nature of the mere in Beowulf; for example, see William Witherie Lawrence, “The Haunted Mere in Beowulf” [PMLA 27. 2 (1912): pp. 208-245].)

Now (re)consider the likeliest meanings and eliminate illogical ones.

We’ve found two strong definitions in “n. 1″ and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If we read the rest of the definitions in that entry, we see that two more specific meanings, “inlet” and “marsh,” do not become current until later centuries, so we can reject them. Let’s go on to the next entry. The definition given for “mere, n. 2″ is “a boundary, a border.” This is interesting and seems possibly relevant to the passage because the meaning was available in Old English, and certainly one can live in or on a boundary or border. However, we know from context clues in the poem that “mere” is more likely to refer specifically to a body of water since, at least in Heaney’s translation, it has a “bank” and a “bottom” and a “surface.” Still, we’ll keep this second meaning — border or boundary — in mind as possible wordplay in the passage; perhaps the poet did, too.

Moving on, clearly we can reject the definition given for “mere, n. 3,” “mermaid” or “siren” — the Grendelkin can’t possibly live in or on a mermaid, so that definition seems completely unlikely. The same logic applies to entries n. 4-n.7, given “mere’s” grammatical function and literary context in Beowulf and its history of use.

We’re almost there: read the word’s etymology and see what it adds to your understanding.

Finally, if we read the etymology for “mere,” we learn that the Old English word is “cognate” (“born with,” sharing a common origin) with words in old Scandinavian languages (like Old Frisian) and with Latin (“mare,” sea, from which the French “mer” also derives). That means we’re looking at a very old word, one likely to have been familiar to and to have resonated with Beowulf‘s audience. “Mere” might be related to words like “moor,” “marsh,” and “march,” so the OED tells us that the original Germanic stem word might have meant “wetland.” The etymology can lend support to our developing theory that the mere is an inland pool connected (whether literally or figuratively) to the sea.

Finally, use your research to analyze the passage in which you found the word.

Now that we know what the word means and we know something of its history, we can go back to the text and interpret the passage containing the word using that information. We’ve discovered that Grendel and his mother live in a pool of standing water that may connect to the sea. In other words, they aren’t properly speaking sea-monsters, but they probably don’t live in a landlocked body of water, either. So what?

It’s time to ask questions of the text in order to close read it: “What could be significant about the fact that the Grendelkin live in a mere, sea and not-sea, instead of some other kind of body of water? How would it change things if they lived in the ocean itself, or in a river, or in a more clearly landlocked lake?” One answer to these questions might be that their home is a symbolic space as well as a literal one: their mere reflects its inhabitants’ nature. (Poets often use geography and landscape metaphorically, so this kind of thinking is not necessarily a stretch.) The word “mere,” with its two meanings, may tell us that the Grendelkin live on the marshy, fungible border between land and sea. In turn, that geographical space could represent the metaphorical space between human civilization and wilderness. The mere itself, by virtue of its definition and etymology, could represent the terrifying threshold or limen between man and nature, between life and death, between safety and the abyss, and between the known and the unknown. This interpretation seems tenable since elsewhere in the text we learn that Grendel and his mother are themselves “in between” human and inhuman; they look like people and have human ancestors yet they are exiles from and hostile towards civilization. They are both people and not-people. They and the water they live in are both “ambiguous” — having more than one meaning — and “paradoxical” — seemingly self-contradicting.

As this demonstration shows, the OED can help you build your “word hoard” by teaching you more about words and how they have been used. The OED can also enable you to discover words’ many levels of meaning and to “historicize” those levels. Finally, doing this kind of research can help you think creatively when you analyze literature while helping you ground your flights of fancy in facts. Think of it this way: in this handout, I used a terrible example, a word from an ancient poem that is notoriously internally inconsistent, that may have had multiple authors, and that most of us today read in translation — not a great candidate for a stable or secure close reading. Nevertheless, the experiment worked: researching a single vocabulary word facilitated a logical, complex interpretation of the text, and secondary research confirms (trust me) that other scholars have drawn similar kinds of conclusions. By using the OED for close reading, you, too, can unlock deeper meaning in literature.

1 For simplicity’s sake, in this handout I assume that a single poet or poets collaborating together had the “final word” on the words in Beowulf – obviously, a big assumption!

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