Historical and Etymological Dictionaries
|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
Historical, or etymological, dictionaries are unique and offer a source for finding meanings of words that have changed or are no longer in use. Etymologies show the history of words from their first usage. They trace changes in word interpretation and meaning, using quotations to illustrate word usage. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is by far the best-known etymological dictionary. The OED, as it is commonly called, offers a lengthy historical discussion for each word. Usage of the word is arranged chronologically and is illustrated with quotations. The attached image illustrates the etymology of the word genealogy.
The OED is not a ready reference source. Rather, it is a definitive work to be used when conducting a serious study of words. Many libraries own an earlier edition of the OED published in 1933. The OED is also available on CD-ROM.
Two American works modeled after the OED are Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, by Sir William Craigie and James R. Hulbert; and A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, by Mitford McLeod Mathews.
Craigie’s work shows changes in English words that took place in the American colonies up to the end of the nineteenth century. Also featured are words related to the development of the United States and the history of its people, such as alligator, abolition, Bay State, and bourbon whisky. Definitions appear chronologically with many quotations to illustrate usage.
A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles offers definitions of words peculiar to the United States that is, words that originated in America. These Americanisms include appendicitis and hydrant, which are outright coinages. The words adobe, campus, and gorilla first became part of English usage in the United States (Mathews 1951, v). Also included are foreign words that are now part of everyday English for example, the French words cafe, buffet, and restaurant.