by Siobhan Breoghan

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is rarely used in historical research, possibly because most people are unfamiliar with it. In addition to the standard definitions found in most dictionaries, the OED includes illustrative quotations that show the word being used. The illustrative quotes are found in brackets following each definition.

The first quotation for each word is the earliest use which the editors of OED were able to find. Do not, if the date given is too late, abandon the project. English is a very fluid language that underwent some major changes during the period covered by the SCA, so try some other sources.

Let me stress that finding a quote that falls within the SCA period does not necessarily mean that you have documented it. You should, if possible, find the original source (an extensive bibliography is in the back) and use it as documentation.

For example, you plan to write a triolet for the upcoming poetry competition, but you can't document it as a period verse form. You find in the OED that the triolet was discussed in a 1367 grammar. Your next step is to track down this grammar. When you find it, you have a primary, contemporary source for your poem, without spending hours going through every extant grammar book from the period.

Again, the OED is not a substitute for other research, but can be a shortcut to finding a period document on your subject. The OED is found in most libraries. Happy hunting!

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