History through the Oxford English Dictionary

Many of us will have sat down with a cup of tea and the crossword. Some of us may also have had a version of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) at hand to check spellings and meanings of words. But how many of us really use the OED to its full potential to learn about the history of words, where they came from, how their meaning has changed and even about the wider history of the world…

Coffee and crossword

The first volume of the OED was published back in 1884, but it was not until 1928 that the final 10th volume of that first edition was published. It was designed by the Philological Society of London to be a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times, different from other dictionaries of English, where the focus is on current meaning. The OED does have present-day meanings of words, but also the history of individual words, and of the language, traced through over 3 million quotations, taken from a wide range of publications, including classical literature, letters and cookery books. One Isabella Mary Beeton is quoted over 150 times!   Don’t forget those essential grape-scissors when laying the table and anyone for brickbat cheese? Mary Berry with only 1 quote has some way to go to catch her up.

At one time, to consult the full version of the OED which can take us beyond spelling and meaning, you probably had to visit a library, as it consisted of 20 hefty volumes at a considerable price. However now you can access it online for free through your library service and use the flexibility of the digital version to search for so much more than individual words. So what actually can you use the Dictionary for, apart from the obvious spelling check for a contentious Scrabble word?

You can search the dictionary by year or range of years to see which words entered the language at a particular time, giving an insight into national and international events, scientific progress and discoveries and changing attitudes and concerns. It is fairly easy to estimate when Bolshevism, tank, Gallipoli and machine-gunning were added to the OED.  You might find it harder to guess the date of the first recorded use of O.M.G (as beloved by teenagers), parmigiana, mobile phone or internet. Picking out the words that are first recorded in the Dictionary for a particular year can be a great way to mark special events and anniversaries. Any wordsmiths celebrating a Golden Wedding this year would be delighted to know that the words humongous, jobsworth and the phrase punk rock are first recorded in the OED for 1970. Less appealing are carjacking and kalashnikov. For film buffs the phrase “Mrs. Robinson” is recorded from 1970, taken from the film The Graduate.

The online version is far more regularly revised than a print version could be, with quarterly updates. This year was remarkable for an extra update in April outside the quarterly cycle. You will not be surprised to read that the words and phrases added or updated include Covid-19, self-isolating, and elbow bump.

Elbow bump dictionary entry
‘Elbow’, n.

A July update also covered linguistic developments relating to the Covid-19 pandemic¹. What will this tell those looking back in 50 or 100 years’ time at the words recorded first for 2020 about what was happening in the world? “Nightingale ward” is in the OED, but “NHS Nightingale hospital” is yet to appear, though there is an entry in Wikipedia, so maybe in the OED soon, together with “Nightingale courts”?

So what is the oldest word recorded in the OED?  The policy of the OED at the start, as stated by James Murray, the first editor, was to exhibit “ the history and signification of the English words now in use, or known to have been in use since the middle of the twelfth century. This date has been adopted as the only natural halting-place, short of going back to the beginning, so as to include the entire Old English or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Vocabulary. To do this would have involved the inclusion of an immense number of words, not merely long obsolete but also having obsolete inflexions… Hence we exclude all words that had become obsolete by 1150.” 

The Online version of the OED now includes over 3500 words from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) where the first evidence of use dates from between 650 and 950, but where use continued beyond 1150. These include many of our common pronouns, adverbs and verbs such as he, with and have, as well as nouns such as town, earl, and thief, although the spelling and exact meaning may have changed.  These early words form a significant part of the core vocabulary of English. The earliest 2 listed are dated from around 680 –  the nouns ward and streale, the latter now obsolete

There are over 4000 entries for which the first evidence of use is dated  950 -1150.  Again there are many words still common today such as who, take and no. The months of the year as we know them today start appearing. Childhood and childish are first used, as are sunset, duck and catacomb. Popular in use was probably alehouse and less heard these days are truefast, bridelope and beswike.

Locally the word Chiltern makes its appearance at this time:

Chiltern dictionary entry
‘Chiltern, n.’

Aylesbury has to wait until the 19th Century for an appearance and then in connection with ducks:

Dictionary entry Aylesbury
‘Aylesbury, n’

After 1150, we move into the period of Middle English, 1150-1450, the time of Chaucer and a significant increase in the number of words used in English: over 32,000 words have their first instance of recorded use in the OED in this period, many of which reflect the use of Latin and French in the county at that time. After the Norman Conquest, the rulers in England were French speakers and Latin was the language most commonly used for writing in the post-Conquest period.  However in 1362, the Statute of Pleading made English the official language for Parliament which meant that all nobles and the King finally spoke English well enough to conduct official business. Henry IV was the first English king to speak English as his first language. His son, Henry V, was the first to use English in personal communications.

Not surprisingly given the dominance of French at this time, by 1500, over 40 per cent of all of the words that English has borrowed from French had made a first appearance in the language, including a very high proportion of those French words which now play a central part in the vocabulary of modern English.  The online version of the OED allows us not only to see which words entered the language at a particular time, but also to combine into the search from which language they originated. So we can see that there are over 8550 words of French origin entering the English language 1150-1450.  Venison, beef and pork  give witness to the eating habits of the nobility, a move away from the cow, sow and boar of the farmyard. Other French additions from this time include damask, palace, liege and decree, reflecting the position in society of those using these words.


Today, just over 30,000 words (excluding derived forms) have French identified as part of their history in the OED. However for Latin, the corresponding figure is over 50,000, ranging from everyday words such as candle and sock which both entered the language very early to the more recent (and obscure) maiasaur and perilune

Scandinavian languages had a significant input to the English language from early on, showing the significance and the Viking settlements from the middle of the eighth century to the beginning of the eleventh. The Vikings were Germanic tribes of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Denmark and mounted a series of raids across the North Sea, leading to them conquering large areas of England which would later be known as the Danelaw.  Gradually the English and the Scandinavian amalgamated and the Old Norse spoken by the invaders continued to significantly impact on the English language, shown in basic vocabulary such as egg and sky, the pronouns they, them and their,  and common verbs like clamber and fling. Hints of the violent times of the arrival of the Vikings are shown in the words berserk, slaughter and ransack. More recent, and peaceful, borrowings include ski and ombudsman.

Other languages that have heavily influenced the English language and reflect different times and influences on our history include the Celtic of course with the close proximity of Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic speakers.

As the world opened up with exploration and travel so the number of languages influencing the English language increased and the changes in the language reflect the spread of the English people to new lands and continents. In particular this can be seen in the introduction of new words for foods and the names of animals. Even those British staples, tea and potatoes came from elsewhere.  Tea came from Chinese Amoy dialect te. Potatoes were introduced to Europe from Peru by the Spanish and this is reflected in the origin of the word from the Spanish patata. Budgerigar and koala are first recorded in the OED for the Nineteenth century reflecting the colonisation of Australia and the adoption of Aboriginal words for the unique animals there. You might be surprised at how early the words elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe appear. Polar bear took a little longer!

There are over 1400 words listed as taken from the languages of the Indian subcontinent, the earliest of these from the Fifteenth Century, such as Brahmin, to the more recent samosa in 1955. African languages account for over 500 entries, dating from Seventeenth Century and range from the well known safari (dating back to 1859, so not just used for modern tourists) and gorilla to the more obscure sufuria and gorah.

History can also be reflected by the Dictionary at a more local level. I have already mentioned Chiltern and Aylesbury. Ridgeway is also in the  Dictionary and the infamous Hell Fire Club at West Wycombe warrants an entry:

Dictionary entry Hell Fire
‘Hell fire, adj. n. and int.’

Can you find what the present day place name of Le Onhandedecruch is?

Lace making in Buckinghamshire
Lace making in Buckinghamshire
Chair making High Wycombe
Chair making High Wycombe

The entries for the words plaited, Kattern Day, mechlin and trolly amongst others reflect the importance of lace making industry in Buckinghamshire at one time, whilst those for bodger, seat and chair evidence the history of chair making in the Wycombe area.

The influence of people and publications on the language can also be traced through the OED by looking at the sources for quotations. Clicking on the link to sources from the home page of the online OED will take you to a listing of the 1000 top sources for the OED. Not surprisingly with its long history going back to 1785 and daily publication, the Times newspaper is the most quoted source, with 43348 quotation, athough still only 1.2% of the total number. Given his much shorter life span Shakespeare does well to follow with 32827 quotations – not bad for 52 years! Other writers in the top 10 are Walter Scott, Geoffrey Chaucer and, coming in at 8, John Milton, whose cottage survives in Chalfont St. Giles where he completed Paradise Lost, and was inspired to write its sequel, Paradise Regained, the which  two together provided an astonishing 5812 quotations for the OED!

What about other writers associated with Buckinghamshire?  Another prolific source of quotes for the OED is the poet William Cowper, who lived at Olney and supplies 5896 quotations (36th most quoted source). Benjamin Disraeli is the 243rd most frequently quoted source in the OED, with a total of 1718 quotations from his novels and other writings. Less quoted, but still significant Buckinghamshire connected authors, include John Betjeman (a teacher for a while at Gerrards Cross and fond of “beechy Bucks”), who is quoted, not surprisingly for deb and ginger-beery and the evocative buttercuppy day and lin-lan-lone, but also for nuclear fission and air–conditioned. Mary Shelley contributes Frankenstein, from her novel of the same name, written whilst living in Marlow. Enid Blyton, who lived at Bourne End and Beaconsfield is quoted for adventure (naturally), don’t-carish and tell-tale amongst others. More recently the effervescent Roald Dhal supplies Oompa-Loompa and quotes for golden and chocolate, of course! As can be seen the Oxford English Dictionary offer so much to those who study the history of the English language and also to those who study history. The English language is constantly changing and evolving, reflecting the world of those who use it.  If you wish to explore the Dictionary further, or look up some of those words mentioned above, you can do so by going to Buckinghamshire Libraries catalogue and following the link to our e-Library

You will need your library card and PIN to log in.

Find some doozy and pawky words to amaze friends and family and win at word games and explore the wonderful history of English and the world that has formed it.

To make the most of all the Dictionary has to offer, once logged in, click on Help below the search box or select from the list of helpful resources on the home page. There is also a link to the blog posts which are full of fascinating and quirky information.

Should you need any more information, please contact Buckinghamshire Libraries Information and Learning Team

Thank you to Oxford University Press for their permission to use quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary Online edition.

By Gina Nicholls, Information and Learning Services Manager, Buckinghamshire Libraries.

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