How to Use the OED: an Introduction


Q: As an English major, I am often asked to look up words in the OED. What is it?

A: The OED is the Oxford English Dictionary, an amazing work of lexicography that gives you the meaning of every word in the English language all the way back to Chaucer.

Q: Why is it called the OED? Why not just say Oxford English Dictionary?

A: Simple. If you say "OED," everybody knows you're an English major. If you say "Oxford English Dictionary," people will assume you're in Engineering.

Q: Where do I find this OED?

A: In the reference collection at Alexander Library. That's the room with the tables and the collection of noncirculating reference books -- encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, geographical atlases, etc.

Q: I've never been to the reference room. How do I find it?

A: Ask at the information desk that's right there when you go through the glass doors. Any of the librarians will be delighted to show you where the OED is.

Q: Can I get the OED online?

Yes! Just go to the Alexander Library website and find the link that lets you set up a proxy account for logging on from off campus.

Q: Okay. Suppose I've found the OED. Now I want to look up a word. What do I do?

A: Look at the word you want to look up. What letter does it begin with? Find the OED volume containing words beginning with that letter, take it down from the shelf, and go to a table.

Q: That's not specific enough. Give me an example.

A: Okay. Remember when we were reading Donne's Valediction: Forbidding Mourning? We came to that line in which the speaker compares himself and his lover to "twin compasses."

Some members of the class thought that the compasses were magnetic compasses, the kind used by Boy Scouts to find their way around in the woods. Other members of the class thought it had another meaning.

This is the kind of problem you use the OED to settle.

Q: Okay, suppose I've found the appropriate volume of the OED and looked up "compass." How does that settle anything?

A: It doesn't, yet. What you're trying to do is decide between two possible meanings. Suppose you think that compasses in Donne's poem refers to magnetic compasses. Look at the list of meanings given in the OED. What do you find?

Q: Oh. I see. It must be definition 12.

A. That's right. Good going. OED definition of compass says this:

An instrument for determining the magnetic meridian, or one's direction or position with respect to it, consisting of a magnetized needle turning freely on a pivot; notably employed in the guidance of a ship's course at sea.

Now: does that look like the kind of compass the speaker of Donne's poem is talking about?

Q: No. It couldn't be. the speaker talks about the compass having a "fixed foot," and there's nothing in OED definition 12 that looks like a fixed foot. What do I do now?

A: This is where things get exciting. You are about to discover the marvels and wonders of using the Oxford English Dictionary as it is used by literary scholars. Go through all the other meanings of compass and keep an eagle eye out for one that could have a "fixed foot."

Q: I've been through them all. I don't see a single one that fits. What do I do now?

A: You have looked hard enough yet. Remember: you're not just looking, you're looking with a purpose -- trying to confirm a hypothesis.

You don't know what sort of compass this is yet, but you do know that the compass you want has a "fixed foot."

Go through again.

Q: Oh! Wow! It has to be definition 4!

A: Could be. Let's look at definition 4:

An instrument for taking measurements and describing circles, consisting (in its simplest form) of two straight and equal legs connected at one end by a moveable joint.

Does that look like the right meaning?

Q: Yes! If you let one of the "straight and equal legs" be the one that draws the circle, then the other one has to be the "fixed foot." The "twin compasses" are drawing compasses!

A: Well, that sounds pretty plausible. But there's another problem. How do you know that Donne even knew what drawing compasses were?

Q: That's right. How do I know that this meaning of compass was a possibility when Donne wrote his poem?

A: A good question.

Here you about to discover the greatest glory of the OED. It not only gives you the meanings of words, but it tells you when the word was used with that meaning.

This is especially important when we're reading older literature. For instance, Shakespeare used a lot of words we don't use anymore, and there's always a question of whether a certain word had a certain meaning at the time Shakespeare was writing. But the OED never leaves any doubt. It gives you examples of word use, and it dates the examples.

Q: I think I understand, but it's still pretty complicated. How does this work with compasses, for instance?

A: Well, you've already found your way to definition 4: "an instrument for taking measurements," etc. Now look at the list of examples following that definition. You know that the Donne poem you're interested in was published in 1633. Does the list of examples contain any instances of meaning before 1633?

Q: Yes.Quite a few. That one dated 1570, for instance.

A: That's right. One of the examples looks like this:

1570 Dee Math. Pref. Geometrie teacheth the use of the rule and compass.

Q: I don't understand. What's "Dee"? What's "Math Pref"?

A: It means that this example is taken from a book written by a man named John Dee, who wrote a Preface to Euclid that was published in 1570.

But you don't have to know any of that. What you do know is that the meaning of compass that you're interested in was current before Donne wrote hispoem. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable as a meaning for "twin compasses" in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.

Q: You mean I've just learned how to use the OED?

A: You have, and you are to be congratulated.

The people who understand how to use the OED, and who make a habit of using it every time they are having trouble with a line of poetry or a difficult prose sentence, have lives incomparably richer and more fulfilling than those who have never learned this skill.

They are an elect company, an angelic host biding their time here on earth. They are educated men and women.

Welcome to their number.