Join the OED Free for All

By Shortis, Tim | NATE Classroom, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Join the OED Free for All


Shortis, Tim, NATE Classroom


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You can now access the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary online free from any computer. All you need is a public library membership with the new style of plastic library card and PIN number. If you don't have these then ask at your local library or visit a city library accompanied by evidence of your identity and address. An annual individual subscription recently cost 205 [pounds sterling] plus VAT so this DCMS-brokered deal between Oxford University Press and your council's library services is an astonishing public benefit but it appears to be little known about. Now the OED is free for all, it's time to join up, join in and put students on the trail too.

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The habit of a lifetime

Once over the initial shock of its scale of information, the OED provides a habit-forming source of wonder and insight. It's not just that it gives the most detailed explanations available about any established English word, although it does that. Its appeal lies more in the manner of its explanation and exemplification based on historical evidence. By this method each word and its related meanings are presented in a kind of illustrated word biography which explains where the word came from and how it has been spelt before going on to exemplify its use by citations: brief excerpts from texts taken from the earliest records of the words in use to the recent present, and now set out in graphical timelines for each meaning. A simple journey to seek an answer leads to a lexical micro-odyssey. Even a small number of such journeys alters any reader's understanding of language, leaving her or him both better informed and more open-minded: harsh and unreflective attitudes to misspelling, for instance, are altered a little by seeing all the ways words have been spelt.

Unknown treasures

Whilst the OED is now freely accessible, it may not seem instantly accessible in terms of its initial reading demands. It is a project of eye-popping number as well as wonder and this sense of scale is a source of both richness and obscurity. In a humanities tradition where most writing is still done by individuals working in a solitary manner over a small number of hours, days, months or years, the OED has always been the product of large scale scholarly teamwork carried out over decades. It has been continually revised since work began on it over 130 years ago. It is perhaps no surprise it still remains a classic in the sense of being well known as a title but relatively little experienced first-hand by reading. Since the publication of the first edition eighty-one years ago, the cost of purchasing the print has restricted readership to the dedicated bunch of aficionados and addicts who have had regular access: mainly writers and academics. Free access and an online interface moves the dictionary into a new era of potential readership but it may take old-fashioned teacher guile to help students drink from its ungated pool of knowledge without their falling in and drowning in a sea of compendious reference.

Starting with yourself

You need to explore the OED for yourself before using it pedagogically. If you have an electronic library card and can remember your PIN number, you can get started straightaway by going to your library portal and following the links. I'd suggest spending a couple of hours playing around with it. The OED also provides a short introductory PowerPoint at www.oxfordonline.com/librarians/#training and there's a tour at http://www.oed.com/tour/. As you look at the first few entries, try turning off the filter buttons for pronunciation, etymology, spellings, quotations and timelines, and then turning them on one by one so you can see their function in a layered way. Puzzle out the routine abbreviations and map the structure and sequence of the explanations. A short entry is sometimes useful for this. I have used SLUT with students: they were surprised it was there at all, they were surprised it was so old, and they were engaged by its shifting index of context and meaning: language, gender, drudgery and sexuality. …

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