Short Blog Post 1

Yesterday, the New York Times published this interesting overview of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)The OED tries to document every word in the English language, including the first appearance of that word in print (and lots of other instances of that word in print. Here’s what part of the second edition looks like on the shelves in Alderman:

2014-01-21 14.44.03Here’s the very beginning of the entry on word:

2014-01-21 14.45.02Of course, the OED is online now, and on grounds (or with the VPN), you can access it at

Screenshot 2014-01-22 14.51.07

The OED offers a remarkable way to think about the histories of words. Another, more controversial, way to take a long view of the history of a word is the Google Ngram viewer, located here. While some of the details of what this tool does aren’t fully transparent, it basically searches for word frequencies across some subset of the archive of Google Books (a project to scan every book in lots of major academic libraries).

For example, I can have the Google NGram viewer make a diagram tracing the relative frequency of “old” and “new” from 1800 to the present:

Screenshot 2014-01-22 14.44.46This picture is a bit small, but in the 20th century, you’ll see that “new” overtakes “old” right around 1912, at the birth of the modernist movement. There’s all sorts of things this diagram doesn’t show us, but it does seem to roughly indicate a shift in emphasis from the old to the new at that time–a shift of great interest to me, since I’m a scholar of modernism.

For the first blog post, I’d like you to brainstorm words that it might be interesting to think about in historical terms. See what the OED has to say about that word/those words, and see what the Ngram viewer indicates about it. Briefly write about your findings–if you can think of a claim we could make using the Ngram viewer, briefly make it. Then, reflect on the value of each of these tools–what are the advantages and disadvantages of using each of them to think about the histories of words?




Leave a Reply