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Image from British Library archives of the quotation slips for the O.E.D. ‘The dictionary would include lost and outmoded words as well as the newest fashionable or technical terms; it would trace the history (or etymology) of every word, showing the earliest known usage of each word, and would map how the word had shifted in meaning over time; … Fifty years later the first version of the dictionary – 178 miles of type – was published.'(British Library)

Farah, Felix and Olivia – all like words. As in other years, this year’s seventh graders read Robert Pirosh’s 1934 letter, a word-witty application for a position as a screen writer. We too revelled, wallowed in an avalanche of words – short and taut to long and sinuous. We rolled these words around in our mouths and laughed. Students asked questions about words, plunged into the OED and into the Historical Thesaurus. This was an exuberant, wordy romp and when the students wrote their versions modelled on Pirosh’s letter, the words bore an uncanny resemblance to their personality!

I like words. I like old, dusty, book-like words such as scroll, tome, volume and novella. I like bloody, violent, angry words such as puncture, impale, transpierce and skewer. I like heroic, brave, idol-like words such as victor, champion, lionheart and protagonist. I like monstrous, huge, scary words such as towering, beastly, savage and vicious. I like funny, Australian, slang words such as lollies, ambo, barbie and fair-dinkum. I like words and my favourite word is lollies.(Felix)

‘I like zipping, zapping, zesty words, such as buzz, bolt, whizz, and dart. I like sharp, pointy, spiky words such as pierce, thin, prickle, and pinning. I like hollow, silent, hidden words such as ulterior, muffled, esoteric,and  vaporous. I like thin, light, delicate words such as feathery, gossamer, wispy, and whisper. I like soft, stuffy, pillowy words such as oomph, ploof, fluff, and poof.’(Farah)

I like words. I like merciful, tender words such as pale, mellow, fleecy, delicate, & cashmere. I like peaceful, serene words such as symphony, quiescent, lullaby, & lithe. I like boisterous, harsh, bold words such as cacophonous, garish, bilious & curmudgeonly. I like rash, reckless, preposterous words such as bumfuzzle, argle-bargle, canoodle & bibliophobia.I like quiet, warm, tranquil words such as peppermint, cloud, feathery, and luminesce.I like obscure, kinky, baffling words such as discombobulate, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,nelipot, & bizarro. (Olivia)

So from the gathering of many words, to the narrowing down and exploration of a particular favorite. Students hypothesized about the morphemes in one word confirming hypotheses and gathered data for each written element. Some of their hypotheses could not be sustained, some students became waylaid by syllables. Syllables do not contain meaning, are not morphemes. Hypothesizing first promotes consideration and conjecture, slows down the rush to “search internet” as if there’s a right answer lurking out there just waiting to be googled. Supporting hypotheses with evidence and forming a question to pursue using resources, is a vital step in the process of verifying morphemes and uncovering a root. As students discovered in this process, all words tell a story. 

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 We could have lined up alphabetically, but far more interesting was to line up from the oldest word in the group to the most recent to enter English. Students are beginning to understand that words enter English in different times from different places. Examine the words, excavate the roots and you get a glimpse into another time. ‘Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.'( V. Woolf) However,some words fade from everyday usage, ‘out and about’ only occasionally, then rarely until they slip away altogether, their footprints, as we discovered, quietly recorded in the OED. 

From words to terms

Since day one of school students have been immersed in a sea of orthographic terms. How many students are drowning not waving? How many seem comfortable and show an understanding of the terminology? We passed out terms such as base, affix, root, free, bound, morpheme, elements, connecting vowel letter

Students were asked to work in pairs to:

  •  organize the terms indicating how they the relate to one another
  • annotate each term
  • provide examples of each term where possible.

What do students understand? What needs further clarification? This open-ended task brought to the surface many questions. These concepts will continue to be revised and deepened with every investigation into a word. See below:


Watch one group eloquently sum up their understanding so far:

Students fossick in the OED blithely unaware of the how this living document came to be, unaware of the scholarship, enthusiasm of volunteers and the dedicated work of the chief editor James Murray, Scottish school teacher. Initially an anticipated 10 year, four volume work but it took 70 years and 10 volumes to produce the first edition in 1928 with its impressive collection of 15,487 pages that define 414,825 words! (James Murray)

Murray’s 11 children helped to sort the three and half million quotation slips. This was how they earned pocket money! James Murray died in 1915 before the dictionary was completed. He reached the letter ‘t’ and then tragically terminated in Oxford on 26 July 1915 from heart failure … following a year of ill health which culminated in a bout of pleurisy, one of many such illnesses caused by working in his cold, damp scriptorium. Sheer determination had earlier that month driven this ill, old man of seventy-eight to complete a double section of the dictionary, covering entries in the range ‘Trink’ to ‘Turndown’, on schedule.’ (R.W.Burchfield) 

This year, in the centenary of his death, Oxfordwords blog are producing a series of articles that acknowledge his contribution.

Of course it was not Murray’s work alone that created the dictionary. Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorn:A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words  makes famous the contributions of Dr W.C. Minor, murderer and Broadmoor inmate who contributed between 5,000 and 8,000 quotations according to the 1888 preface,’  and who continued to send in ‘batches’ up to 1902  stopping then due  to ill health’. Of the 2,000 contributors helping, I wonder about ‘Thos. Austin’, who provided 165,000 quotations, Murray’s son Harold who contributed 27,00 slips, along with his wife Ada who provided between 2,000 and 5,000 slips. I’d like to know more about the Thompson sisters (Edith and Elizabeth) who were ‘notably productive’ (15,000 slips) continuing to ‘help with the Dictionary one way or another (e.g. by proof-reading, commenting on meanings etc.) up to their deaths in 1929’. (Examining the OED).

So this frolic in words has resulted in:

  •  greater precision when discussing a word’s structure
  • an awareness of etymology and how to use and question resources to find this – the formidable O.E.D, and the equally remarkable Online Etymology Dictionary.

We are learning how to find the stories behind words, their families, their journeys. Stay tuned for more.

I can’t help wondering about this photo of Murray taken on a North Wales beach during a family holiday. One wonders whether the philologist himself built the sand-monster as a respite from his dictionary work- a mad moment of frivolity after being dominated by order and categorisation! Perhaps a spot of madness was necessary to take on the editorship of this grand Victorian project combined with a willingness to work on words 80 or 90 hours a week.

And grade seven says thankyou Dr Murray, readers, all ensuing editors and lexicographers. We love words!