English 305: Literary Research and Method

Fall 1997
Professor Rebecca Bushnell

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Exercise

Due: October 2

The Oxford English Dictionary is a wonderful resource for finding out what words used to mean, as well as the full range of meanings in our own usage. Using this dictionary, which cites examples of usage from the beginnings of modern English until now, you can chart the interesting shifts in the meanings of English words over the centuries. Any reader of Renaissance texts encounters words that either are unfamiliar or that meant something different then than they do now, or have multiple layers of connotations.

The OED is available both in book and on-line or electronic form. The book is available in the Van Pelt Reference section. The on-line OED is accessible through the link below (or through either the library's menu or the English Web Page).

This exercise will introduce you to searching for words on the OED,and give you some sense of the richness of any given word. Your exercise will be evaluated for your grade, on the basis of its thoroughness and thoughtfulness.


  1. Each person will be assigned a word from one of the texts we have read so far.

    LI>Dial-in to the OED. [Connect to online OED.]

  2. Select "single-term searching."

  3. Choose "search" and enter.

  4. Read about your word: its etymology, its range of meanings at any given time, and its changes over time (note the dates next to each quotation.)

  5. Note that you can search for your word in any quotation throughout the whole OED: back at the search menu, you can choose settings, and "search field," and choose "quotation text," which will look for all occurrences of your word in all the quotations in the OED; or "quotation date," where you can limit your search to a century. See Help for Help (I always do.) Or ask the folks at the Reference desk.

  6. Now write up your observations about the meanings of the word in the time it was used in your text; and discuss how this affects your reading of the line or passage in which the word occurs.