Go to contents

An interesting journey to trace the history of English words

An interesting journey to trace the history of English words

Posted August. 04, 2018 07:22,   

Updated August. 04, 2018 07:22


One would easily think of a dictionary as something that has been always there on desks, bookshelves or in computers from the beginning. However, a dictionary is a book written by someone through a lot of research. The “Oxford English Dictionary (OED)” is considered one of the most reliable dictionaries in the world. A new book has been published in which the author, who has been engaged in the creation of the Oxford dictionary for 37 years, walks us through the history of words defined in the dictionary from their birth to survival and extinction.

Often called a “historical dictionary,” the Oxford dictionary is known for providing not only the simple definitions of a word but also its changes and developments over time and detailed usage. With the first volume published in 1884, eleven more volumes were added until 1928, completing the first edition. Since then, revisions and enlargements have been continuously made. Today’s edition is comprised of 21,728 pages that contain some 600,000 words. The author joined the dictionary department of Oxford University Press in 1976, and has led the publication of the dictionary’s third and online editions as the company’s chief editor for more than 20 years.

“The Word Detective” portrays the interesting world of a dictionary editor, who searches for and collects words like a detective. For example, when coming across exotic products at a supermarket, people would usually decide to try them out. However, the author makes a request to the market’s manager for providing a list of these products, and then studies the history and distribution channel of each product. This is how words “halloumi” (a type of cheese made from goat’s milk in Cyprus) and “semifreddo” (a class of semi-frozen desserts) were added to the Oxford dictionary.

The book also gives an impression of a history book in parts where the author tracks the formation of words. Take a word “juggernaut,” which means a very large truck, for example. The word actually originated from the experience of English people who went to India in the 17th century. Back then, there was a popular festival where the statue of Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, was carried by a large wagon near the Bay of Bengal. Surprised by a huge statue with the height of a four-story building, English people started to call a large wagon “juggernaut,” named after “Jagannath,” Vishnu in Hindi.

According to the Oxford dictionary, an adjective “inviting” has a meaning of “offering the promise of an attractive or enjoyable experience” in addition to asking someone to come to an event. Just like this definition, this book invites readers to an attractive scene where the whole history of English words unfolds.

Won-Mo Yu onemore@donga.com