Middle English Dictionaries Scavenger Hunt

I love dictionaries. This is probably fairly common among people who study dead languages and teach courses like History of the English Language. I try to introduce students to dictionaries throughout my teaching, but historical dictionaries can be a very unfamiliar beast to people for whom dictionaries serve the simple function of defining modern words. One of the things that helps, I think, is to introduce students to dictionaries with small tasks. As we move into Middle English in HEL, I have created something of a scavenger hunt that breaks dictionary searching tasks down into smaller bits. It’s a work in progress, and feedback from my current students will shape changes that I make for next year, but I’d love to get some suggestions from people who are actual scholars of Middle English. What am I missing? What challenges do you face in using the MED and the OED? Are there cool features that I’m missing out on? Are there words with especially fascinating entries?

Here is my scavenger hunt, as it currently stands (minus the spaces I left for students to write in answers, as the formatting does not translate especially well to the internet:

Middle English Scavenger Hunt for the MED and OED

MED: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/ (free to access anywhere)

OED: http://www.oed.com/ (easy access on campus, need to login through the library off campus)

To begin with, let’s simply look up a relatively common word: lord.

What are some examples of Middle English spellings of Lord in the OED?

What changes have occurred in the word lord between the 1175 Cotton Homilies and the 1325 (for 1250) Genesis and Exodus (see quotations for sense I.1).

In the MED, you can search for lord by either doing a lookup or doing a Boolean search, which will search the entire text of the dictionary (under search the MED entries).

When you do a Boolean search for lord, how many total results are there?

In the basic lookup, you can use * as a way to search for wildcards, which is especially useful if you don’t know the exact spelling/ending of a word, but it can also be a great way to find compounds.

Use the basic lookup and type *lord to obtain results that end in –lord. What three compounds appear as results?

Use the basic lookup and type lord* to obtain results that begin with lord-. What are some of the results obtained from this kind of search?

Do you get any different results by looking up *lord*? What are they?

In the MED entry for lord, sense 7c gives “In not so pious interjections or exclamations”. Read the quotations and pick your favorite example of a not so pious interjection with lord.

Next let’s consider the word turd.

What medieval spellings does the OED give for turd?

How many results do you get in the MED with a simple lookup for turd?

One of the most common uses of the * at the end of words is to allow for variant endings. Use the list of spellings from the OED and the * to play around with different ways of doing headword lookups. What search do you find most effective?

Now let’s try a Boolean search for turd. How many entries do you get?

Back to the OED. Let’s play around a bit with the advanced search, which should be a link immediately below the search box.

Use the drop-down menu to change the search from Full Text to First Quotation.

Do a First Quotation search for Chaucer. How many results do you obtain where Chaucer is listed as the first quotation? How about Langland? Margery Kempe?

Go back to advanced search and switch to Quotation Author. How many results do you obtain for Chaucer? Langland? Margery Kempe?

What accounts for the differences in the two types of searches?

Back to the advanced search screen, change the search to Language.

Do a language search for Norse. How many results do you get?

At the top of the search results, click on the option that allows you to view the results as a timeline. This sorts the entries based on first appearance of the word. This can give a sense of when loanwords enter English, but you have to be somewhat careful, as we will see in a moment.

The largest bar in the timeline is for 1049 and before. Click on it to view the results for that time period. Examine the etymology section for some of these words (answer is a good starting point). Is there anything that explains the large numbers of pre-1049 words?

Why would you not call the pre-1049 results loanwords?

Go back to the timeline for Norse words. Other than the pre-1049 words, what is the next major time interval for the appearance of Norse words?

Click on it. If you picked the right interval, the fourth result should be anger. How does the etymology section for anger differ from the etymology section for answer?

Now let’s try French. Go back to advanced search and do a language search for French.

Whoa! How many results are there?

Which medieval (pre-1500) period sees the greatest influx of French words?

That’s enough of the OED. Let’s go back to the MED. One of the benefits of doing wildcard searches is that it allows you to search for individual morphemes in words. For example, the word parliament entered written English from Anglo-Norman circa 1300 (you can check it with the OED). This might cause you to wonder what other –ment words entered Middle English.

Go to the lookup page in the MED, and do a headword search for *ment. How many results are there?

Click on the result for adubbement. What poem is given as the source for all three quotations?

That’s probably enough for now. Hopefully you have a much better sense of your way around these dictionaries. If you have any questions, please ask me, whether in class, in office hours, or over e-mail.

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