Category Archives: archive


The Oxford English Dictionary recently redesigned its website. The design is in general much slicker, allowing the reader to more easily jump between entries, view timelines of word usage, and consult the Historical Thesaurus, a classification of words in the dictionary. The opening of the new site was accompanied by the usual quarterly update on recent revisions and additions.

I have long been a fan of the OED, appreciating both the quaintness of some of the original definitions that remain from the first edition (1884–1928) and the comprehensiveness of the ongoing revisions. The result is a sort of temporal heteroglossia,* the different styles competing for prominence, sometimes within a single entry.

The OED is also an archive of sorts, and as such can be useful to historians. The dictionary covers more than 600,000 word forms, and aims to provide a quotation of the first written instance of each word. For instance, by looking up the word borsch (the East European beet soup), we find that the first recorded use attributed to the police magistrate John Paget in 1884: “Let. 2 Sept. in Mem. & Lett. (1901) ii. vi. 346   A real Russian dinner—first there was a strange thing called Borsch.”

Apart from looking up individual words, you can also use the advanced search tools. I tried searching for words borrowed from Russian before 1800 and got 94 results, some of which were false positives but most of which are highly interesting. The quotations and definitions in many of them highlight the exoticness of the things defined for the English-speaking reader; one amusing example is the word barometz. The word is apparently derived from the Russian баранец, which means “little ram”:

A spurious natural-history specimen, consisting of the creeping root-stock and frond-stalks of a woolly fern (Cibotium barometz) turned upside down; formerly represented as a creature half-animal and half-plant, and called the Scythian Lamb.

Anyone can contribute to the OED. They are particularly interested in antedatings, i.e., earlier quotations for words (for example, in the previous edition the word dictionary itself was dated to 1526; a quotation is now given from c. 1480). So, if you see an unusual English word in anything old you happen to be reading, be it a 1950s magazine or a eighteenth-century opera libretto, check the OED to see if you can provide an antedating!

*This word, one translation of Bakhtin’s term разноречие, is surprisingly not in the OED yet (probably because the editors are focusing on the second half of the alphabet).