Category Archives: Dictionaries and Lexicography

Poetic Antagonyms

The verb “cleave” has two contradictory senses in English: it means both “to separate” and “to join together” (and so figures its own self-separated, self-joined meanings). Out this week is a journal article in which I discuss “cleave” and other self-antithetical words (I call them “antagonyms”) when they occur in English poetry, as well as […]

Pejorative Eponyms – “Quétaine”

As often happens, today I was looking at something on the internet when my running internal commentary snarked, quétaine! People from Quebec grow up knowing this very useful word, which describes a thing, style or behaviour which is simultaneously lame, camp, kitschy, corny, and contemptible. Here is a site devoted to photographic evidence of it. […]

Oil has poise(s)

One for the science and metaphor files? From “The Thermodynamics of Glass“: A liquid has viscosity, a measure of its resistance to flow.  The viscosity of water at room temperature is about 0.01 poises.  A thick oil might have a viscosity of about 1.0 poise. Now, OED lets us know that “poise, n.1” is originally […]


From Choate’s American Bird Names: Shite poke. An attempt to render more delicate by a change in spelling a name for the bird derived from its habit of ejecting effluent when making a startled departure. In America applied indiscriminately to the Black-crowned Night Heron, the Green-backed Heron and the bittern. Poke, now E. dialect, “bag”, […]

Poetry and the Dictionary Conference – Oxford 2013

The CFP for this summer’s conference in Oxford has been posted. I expect to be there discussing some aspect of the OED and poetry. This symposium will be held at St Peter’s College, Oxford, on 15 June, 2013, with a view to opening up and exploring connections between poetry and the dictionary. Proposals for papers […]

Three OED Poems

Recent posts on found poetry reminded me of several OED entries I  bookmarked out over the years because they gave me more than the usual pleasures of etymology, definition, and commonplace-book-like selection of previous uses. So I decided to work up a couple of these into poems. Other than acts of lineation, punctuation, elision, and […]

Incent, Incentivize: Authority Always Wins

In the course of a recent dinner conversation I cocked my ear (and my eyebrow) at the sound of a verb I had not heard before: “to incent.”  “Incentivize” I know well of course, having heard it many times in the wild and also in corporate-language peeving contexts [because, you know, verbing weirds language. See a […]

OED Curiosity Rovers

As part of some computer housekeeping, I’ve made up a little inventory of the Python programs I’ve developed to have a peek inside the massive text file that is the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Here’s a list: 1. Field Comparison Tool – Look for Intertextuality in poems *I discussed some this program in the […]

Longest Etymologies

One of the most important improvements to the ongoing OED3 revision is occurring in the etymology sections, which are being greatly expanded. Yesterday’s Languagehat discusses two such expanded etymologies – those of ‘admiral’ and ‘to be’. The second is claimed by the current editors to be the longest etymology in OED3, coming in at 1,765 9,672* […]

The most and least poetic alphabetical ranges in the OED

In my presentation at DH2012 I made a couple of comments on Giles Goodland’s paper ‘OED Online’s Single-Quotations Entries: an Analysis‘, mostly about the sampling method that Goodland employs, and which everyone else has employed so far when trying to say something about the OED that isn’t facilitated by whatever the current online functionality happens […]

Discovery: the most poetic word in the English language

Now that I’ve tagged more than half of the evidence quotations in OED2 for genre [see here and here for a discussion of this process], it’s time to start having a poke around in the data. A question that occurred to me last night was: ‘is there anything interesting about the relative density of poetic vs. […]

Electronic OED, Poetry and Intertextuality :: DH2012 Presentation Slides

Here are the slides for my presentation today at Digital Humanities 2012 in Hamburg: PDF: Electronic OED, Poetry and Intertextuality [de-linked*] At the moment this is for reference or information only, and is presented here without the necessary context and discussion in my conference paper (to be posted at a later date). An abstract with […]

More Common: ‘Foot’ or ‘Etymologically’?

The OED’s etymology sections are jammed full of technical terms like ‘aphetic’, ‘stem’, and ‘neut.’; commonish words that are overrepresented here because of context, like ‘whence’, ‘obscure’, ‘adoption’, and ‘origin’; and generally very common words like ‘the’, ‘of’, and ‘is’. So what is the most common root sense in OED2 (1989)? It may be ‘stone’, […]

Oxford English Dinner

Some OED entries badly need revising. A friend who teaches in Oxford just posted this to her Facebook status (I’ve noticed younger British academics in the midst of that end-of-year slow torture called ‘marking’ like to post little gems like this on social media for relief, or therapy): Most telling student error of the year: […]

Noah Webster was a terrible phonologist

I’ve been in the NYPL last week looking at Noah Webster’s papers. One of his handwritten lectures reminded me of what a bad phonologist he was. Objecting to John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), Webster singled out the grouping of p, l, t, s, k, and th (as in ‘think’) together under the epithet ‘sharp’, […]

‘Poetical’ Etymologies?

This post is more about how the term ‘poetical’ tends to be used pejoratively, and how it corresponds to the term ‘etymologies’, rather than about any actually poetical etymologies, or etymological poetry, both of which I do think exist. This morning’s Language Log brings us a post called ‘Poetical Etymologies‘, which reproduces this Wondermark cartoon:

Attributions and intertexts: ‘Wrinching and spraining the text’

Recently I posted about my idea to teach a computer to look for allusions to the Oxford English Dictionary in poems. A while ago I came across an instance of intertextual reference in a poem by Geoffrey Hill which illustrates really well several of the issues that arise when dealing with the OED, which is […]

The OED in Poetry

Some poems mention looking etymologies up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Paul Muldoon’s “Cows” does this, near-rhyming ‘protestations of O.E.D.’ with ‘fade’ and ‘jade’ (the rhyme works best if you lexicalize the acronym and pronounce it with its preposition, like ‘of owed’). His “Hedge School” remembers ‘tracing the root of metastasis‘ in the New Shorter […]

Poetical Lexicography

The OED was conceived as a dictionary ‘on historical principles’. The practice employed from the beginning was to illustrate the several sense definitions of a word over time with quotations from published material across the lifespan of that sense. Currently I’m engaged in trying to quantify the extent of poetical sense illustration in the OED.  […]

Poems in the OED

Computer scientists at the University of Waterloo were responsible for digitizing the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2), in the late 1980s. Initially available on CD-ROM, this eventually became the OED Online. The database has quickly replaced the printed dictionary as a first point of call for the word-curious, primarily because the extensive mark-up of […]


In 2011-13, I’m investigating questions about poetry, value, and accident, in the context of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, intended to ‘enable the development of new research questions, as well as experimentation with new methods, theoretical approaches and/or ideas’. The questions and methods I’m exploring all have something to do with why contingency, or accident, […]