Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 13.2 Oxford English Dictionary


In 1857 a group of scholars gathered for a meeting of the Philological Society in London and decided that the current dictionaries (mostly Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary) were not sufficient to cover all the advancements in knowledge of historical linguistics. This was the impetus for work on a New English Dictionary (the NED) that would be a complete historical record of all the words that existed in the language from the year 1100 to the present. When Oxford University Press agreed to publish the dictionary it became known instead as the Oxford English Dictionary, or more simply, the OED.

In order to explain how the OED arranges its entries, and the best use of it, imagine you are reading Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in Act 3, scene 6 you come across the line “A soldier, one of buxom valor.” This is an odd line, since the word “buxom” today generally means “plump” or more often, “large-breasted,” and describes women rather than men. Describing a male soldier’s valor as “buxom” would make no sense at all today. Using the OED, however, we can see what the word meant when Shakespeare was writing; in fact, we can see what the word has meant throughout the entire history of English.

You can access the OED here. If you are off campus you will need to enter your password. If the link does not work, go to the UNLV Library website and search in the catalog for “Oxford English Dictionary online.”

Once you have access, look up the word “buxom.” If for some reason you cannot get access to the dictionary online, the library has physical copies of it as well, but if you use the hard copy, then you must use the complete 20-volume edition, not the shorter OED, which is a 2-volume set.

After the pronunciation, the first list contains all the spelling variations of the words from 1175 on, a good reminder that English spelling was only recently standardized. Next comes the word’s etymology. If you read through the etymology, you can see that the word is formed from a free morpheme “bow” (to bend at the waist), combined with the adjectival suffix “–some” (the same as in handsome, winsome, burdensome, etc.). In other words, the word started as an adjective to describe something that was “easily bent.”

The definitions of the dictionary go in chronological order. In order to compile the OED, readers read everything that they could find written in English, from Middle English up to contemporary writings, looking for examples of words (they often do include Old English as well). In the early days they would write these examples on slips of paper, along with the entire sentence it occurred in, and the source of the quotation, and then send these slips to the editors of the dictionary. The earliest example of “buxom” found in English was in 1175 in a sermon from the so-called Lambeth Manuscript: “Beo buhsum toward gode” (“be buxom towards God”). In this first usage we can see that the meaning of the word has already been modified. It has made a metaphorical shift from a physical object that could be easily bent, to a person’s action or will which is easily persuaded; in other words, “obedient.” This type of shift would fall under the “transfer of meaning” category, since it involves a metaphor: “just as an object is easily bent, so this person’s will is easily bent.”

The second development of the word’s meaning appears in definition 1b, “submissive, humble, meek,” first recorded in around 1300. In other words, we have moved from describing an action to a person’s general character. Although it is perhaps difficult to see a real difference between meaning 1a and 1b, we could perhaps think of it as more of a generalized term.

About 60 years later, William Langland, a contemporary of Chaucer and a great English poet in his own right, gives a positive spin to the notion of being obedient or meek, using the word to mean “gracious, indulgent, favorable, amiable.” In other words, someone who was “obedient” was someone who was not “argumentative or cantankerous or unfriendly.” The word’s meaning has undergone amelioration.

If we move down a bit to the definition II “blithe, jolly, well-favored,” we see that in the seventeenth century the word has continued its amelioration, but the editors have added a note suggesting that there was a new meaning developing with a slight pejoration, but only in certain uses: “The explanation in Bailey and Johnson [other dictionaries], ‘amorous, wanton’, is apparently only contextual.”

Finally, also in the seventeenth century, the word developed a new meaning through concretization, when the abstract character of someone who was jolly and good-natured was applied to that person’s physical characteristics: someone who looks healthy, and therefore is “plump” and “comely” or “jolly.”

Today this meaning has been further specialized, where the word “buxom” only refers to one aspect of plumpness on a woman’s body, her breasts, and it is purely a physical characteristic. This is evident in the latest quotation given, from 1873: “A slight gathering in of her dress ... to exhibit her buxom figure to full perfection.” There is no hint in this quotation of the earliest meaning of obedient, or even of the more general “jolly” personality of the woman being described.

So, although Shakespeare could refer to a soldier’s lively valor as buxom, suggesting that the soldier was ready to obey, and to do so willingly, today such a usage would be entirely foreign.