The Magazine

Caught in the Web

An English monument goes digital.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The online Historical Thesaurus is infinitely easier to use than the two-volume print version. There are, for example, 36 different sets of synonyms for proof, each of which is clearly defined and readily accessible, without any delving into labyrinthian indexes. Dyed-in-the-wool print aficionados—or if you like, thoroughgoing, sworn, confirmed, ingrained print aficionados—will doubtless find having to concede this painful, but it is undeniable.

Although serendipity is not as likely with the digital as the print version, the online OED does feature a sidebar listing proximate words. Thus, in the case of vast, readers can view, among other words, vassalage, which the OED illustrates with Macaulay’s History of England (1849): “How our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers.” It was only eight years after Macaulay wrote this that the Philological Society recommended that a new dictionary be compiled. The same Victorian confidence inspired both.

When it comes to that astringent genre, the style guide, there are only three books worth reading: H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words, and the OED. And the OED is the best of the lot. Dip into the quotations and you will see why. For hobble, defined as “an awkward or perplexing situation from which extrication is difficult,” the OED cites George Washington: “I think you Wise men of the East, have got yourselves in a hobble.” Winston Churchill offers this salvo for pharisaicalness: “I must put pen to paper to ask you what you think of Coolidge’s Armistice Speech. Its coldness, smugness, self-sufficiency, boastfulness, Pharisaicalness & cant make me boil & freeze alternately.” Robert Louis Stevenson observes of Queer Street: “The more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.” And for perseverance, Edmund Burke supplies this quotation, which epitomizes the entire history of the OED: “There is nothing which will not yield to perseverance and method.”

The online version has many new features, giving readers the ability to browse categories of words in terms of subject, usage, region, and language of origin. Thus, readers can browse words related to such subjects as arts, crafts and trades, law, military, philosophy, politics, religion, and technology. They can look at groups of words in terms of their usage, whether allusive, colloquial, slang, ironic, poetic, or literary. For example, the slang phrase to make a hole in the water, meaning “to commit suicide by drowning,” is nicely illustrated by Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (1865): “This is the drunken old chap .  .  . wot had offered .  .  . to make a hole in the water for a quartern of rum stood aforehand, and kept to his word for the first and last time in his life.”

Readers can also focus on words in terms of their geographical derivation, including Britain, North America, Australasia, the Caribbean, India, or Southeast Asia. And access groups of words listed by their linguistic origin. Thus, under European languages, readers can browse words having Germanic (10,830), Italic (64,155), Greek (8,238), and Celtic (587) origins. From this it is clear how considerable a contribution Latin and Greek made to our vocabulary, though a readiness to naturalize all foreign words into its magpie vocabulary has always been characteristic of English. Indeed, as Onions once quipped, “it was the salvation of English that it became a Romance language.”

Proof of this can be seen in the inveteracy with which English appropriates French words. In the Great War the English Tommy turned the French estaminet into stay-a-minute and Il n’y a plus (there is none left) into napoo, an all-purpose word meaning finished, gone, done for. Verve is an example of one of those French words that English simply pinched outright without bothering to change. The OED nicely illustrates it with something out of Ouida: “There isn’t one half the verve among you new people there was in my young time”—a sentiment which oldies might wish to reconsider now that the young have produced this brilliant online OED.  

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