Words in English public website
LING 216
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Resources for the Study of Words
and English Language


  • Internet Dictionaries and other On-line Resources
  • (Book) Dictionaries of Modern English
  • History of English
  • Beowulf
  • Early History of England
  • English Language Generally
  • Language Change
  • Authors of Books on Word and Phrase Origins
  • Language Features in Magazines
  • Journals about English Words and Language
  • Game Shows involving Words and Language
  • Word Usage
  • Standardization, Prescriptivism, and Social Norms of Language
  • Grammar, Prescriptive and Descriptive
  • Spelling and History of Spelling
  • The Proto-Indo-Europeans
  • Slang
  • Neologisms
  • Other Aspects of Words

    Internet Dictionaries and Other On-line Res ources

    Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition. (OED Online) Accessible to the Rice community over the internet (from on campus computers or via a VPN link), and also available on CD-ROM in the Language Resource Center in Rayzor Hall. The CD-ROM is great for doing serious searching of the various databases comprising the dictionary. For example, you can search for all the Arabic loanwords in the dictionary, or search for all instances of a word in all quotations between 1600-1800, and other specialized searches. There is a little handbook describing the online OED and its searching capacities in the language lab that you can check out with the CD-ROM. The OED is also available in book form, see under (Book) Dictionaries below.

    Online Merriam Webster's Dictionary. Useful for quick look-ups for definitions of existing words. Etymological information is not detailed enough for our purposes in this class. Also includes a useful Thesaurus on another tab on the same page.

    thesaurus.com. Made from the classic Roget's Thesaurus, a synonym dictionary for English based on semantic groupings. Helps you find just the right word (le mot juste).

    Yourdictionary.com (formerly "A Web of On-line Dictionaries"). Allows a search for a word in multiple on-line dictionaries at once. Also does searches for foreign words. Very handy for brand-new or nonce loanwords adopted by writers in English from other languages they know.

    A.Word.A.Day. A "Word Server" for those who are captivated by the music and magic of words. This server sends subscribers an email a day with an interesting word, its definition and etymology. As a bonus, it includes a useful quote (epigram). You can subscribe or just read the words on the web.

    World Wide Words. Another great site for word lovers. One section contains brief articles on particular word-topics including slang terms for money, origins of color words, language games of various kinds, etc. Other categories are newly-noted words in English ("The Word Hoard"), Usage Notes, observations on ongoing semantic changes, and other lexical explorations.

    The Sesquipedalian. Stanford University's newsletter for language and linguistics. Includes tidbits on words and language, mainly focused on English.

    The Phrontistery. A list of dictionaries and other sites about words.

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    (Book) Dictionaries of Modern English

    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Desk-top dictionary. Has a useful appendix of Indo-European roots, making it handy for tracing etymological connections among words. Also available on CD for Macintosh and PC computers.

    Webster's Third International Dictionary. Very large and comprehensive.

    The Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition. The book version of the online edition, above. Over 20 volumes. Available in the reference room of the library. Not as good for searching as the CD-ROM, but more useful for reading without eyestrain.

    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Large two volume dictionary; a good substitute for the OED when you don't need all the quotations but would like the full etymology and definitions.

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    History of English

    Videos on the History of English
    The Adventure of English. 8 part British television series on DVD. In class, we view the first and half of the second of the 50-minute parts. The whole series is now digitized and on Canvas for LING 216 students at Rice. Good for review. Also just excellent viewing if you are interested in the English language.

    The Story of English 12 part PBS video series (VHS). Available Fondren library (for in-library viewing or taking home overnight.) Recommended: Part 3, Mother Tongue. Contains basically the same historical material as the Adventure of English above, but includes sociolinguistic aspects of English dialectology. Contains some scenes of expression of linguistic prejudice accompanying (actually probably resulting from) ethnic prejudice.

    Maps and Visual Aids on the History of English

    Historical Texts: English of Different Periods

    Books on the History of English

    Mother Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson. (Penguin Books, 1990.) Hilarious and irreverent introduction to the history of English.

    The Life and Times of the English Language: The History of our Marvellous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne. (Bloomsbury, 1991.) A wonderful read. Focuses less on the technical details and more on the sociohistorical context of the changing language.

    A History of the English Language by Alfred Baugh and Thomas Cable. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1993.) Comprehensive, yet readable.

    Growth and Structure of the English Language by Otto Jespersen. (Ninth revised edition, Basil Blackwell, 1938.) Originally written in 1905, this is a classic little book that sums up all the periods of vocabulary borrowing as well as giving a sketch of word-formation processes and a few other topics. Written for the general public by the 20th century's greatest authority on the English language. Those who are really meant to be linguists often read it as undergraduates.

    The Origin and Development of the English Language by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. (4th edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1993.) A readable and thorough introduction to the history of English. Standardly used as a textbook for History of English courses (including at Rice.)

    A History of English by Barbara Strang. (Methuen and Co., 1970.) Very linguistically-informed history, given in reverse order to the usual fashion of histories: starts with Modern English and ends with Germanic! Quite readable, and good for those who want to get into the subject in depth.

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    Recent translations of Beowulf as well as a movie can make this epic come to life for those interested in ancient Germanic stories (ultimately, the same source from which J.R.R. Tolkien created The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

    Beowulf, the movie. A high-budget Hollywood movie Beowulf was released in November 2007, based on the legend in the anonymous Old English epic poem. This trailer for Beowulf gives a good idea of the movie. Somewhat implausibly, Angelina Jolie plays the monster Grendel's mother, in spike heels.

    Beowulf Online. This site, which the authors call by the somewhat old-fashioned name of "Beowulf in Hypertext", is a very good online site for materials on Beowulf the poem. It contains the text in Old English, a modern translation, and information on history of the work, background on the characters and tribes in the poem, information on archeology of the kinds of objects mentioned in Beowulf which have been dug up from ship burials in England, and various other resources.

    Beowulf translated by David Breeden. A brief introduction and picture of the single surviving Beowulf manuscript, fire-scarred and now preserved in the British Museum, is followed by a modern translation by David Breeden, an American poet and novelist. The translation is in up-to-date English and in free verse, so as to be unconstrained by poetic meter, which sometimes can have detrimental effects on accurate translation. The original is in ancient Germanic verse form, not rhymed, but governed by fairly strict meter (specific numbers of stressed syllables per line), and characterized by pervasive alliteration and striking metaphorical tropes called kennings.

    Beowulf: A New Translation, by Seamus Heaney. Faber and Faber 1999. This translation has made a splash both with Old English specialists and with ordinary modern readers, whether of poetry or prose. I've seen a lot of translations of Beowulf (just google "Beowulf translation" and you'll find plenty online). But this is my favorite. I can read it and not find myself wallowing in archaic expressions chosen by some Victorian with a tin ear for language. If you read one translation of Beowulf (which you should, if you want to really have an education!), I'd recommmend this one. Easily available in the Rice library and public libraries, and in bookstores, Amazon, eBay, etc., for a reasonable price.

    Review of Heaney's Translation of Beowulf This book review is a nice clear critical overview of Seamus Heaney's translation above. The sample passage in the review shows how simultaneously beautifully written and accessible this translation is.

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    Early History of England

    In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood. (London: Book Club Associates. 1981. Based on a BBC TV series.) If you only ever read one book about the early history of England, this should be it. Here, particular eras are described in the form of dramatic narratives centered around the lives of particular actual historical personages. First comes the story of Boadicea, Queen of the British Celts, and her ferocious rebellion against the Romans. Then the equally compelling stories of the historical King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man (as reconstructed from the gorgeous artifacts in his royal burial), and King Offa, the mighty Mercian king. The drama of Alfred the Great and his struggle and eventual success against the relentless onslaughts of the Vikings is the unforgettable high point of the book. Finally, we learn about William the Conqueror's triumph over the Anglo-Saxons and eventual crushing domination of all those who refused to submit to his rule. Any of these stories can be read in isolation and all are excellent for giving the flavor of life in England in these earlier periods.

    The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated and collated by Anne Savage. (Guild Publishing, London, 1983.) A Modern English rendering of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history of England kept by monks during the dark ages in England. Sample Entries: Vikings Sack Lindisfarne.

    The famous Chronicle, frequently mentioned in the first episode of the Adventure of English DVD series (see above), is a year-by-year narrative of what happened in England in Anglo-Saxon times. It was started in the 9th century (and selective entries dating back to Christ's birth were added at that time) and was stopped for unknown reasons in 1154. Has vivid descriptions of the Viking catastrophes and the Norman Conquest (featuring William's blitzkrieg through North England). This edition has illustrations, including some beautiful color photographs of the Sutton Hoo royal burial finds (Anglo-Saxon art, jewelry, weaponry etc.). Also has a good starter bibliography of works on the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Worth having a look at, at the very least for the stunning illustrations.

    London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford. (Crown Publishers, 1997.) I love this book! It is a historical novel in which London is the backdrop to a series of stories about 6 fictional families and their ups and downs, intermarriages and enmities, through the last 2000 years. There are chapters on Roman London, Anglo-Saxon London, the Viking incursions, London at the Norman Conquest, during the Middle Ages, the Tudor period, etc., all the way through to the Blitz. The characters at each period are individuals yet maintain their ancestral family traits in an amusing way. The gradual merger of all the different populations that moved into England in the past two millenia can be seen on a human scale.

    This is a great way of learning about the history of England, especially the early part. The stories are well-plotted and will keep you reading. The book includes maps of Roman and Saxon London, Medieval and Tudor London, and Georgian and Victorian London, so you can see the development of the city at a glance. Many of the stories behind London's neighborhoods and place names are revealed in passing: Westminster, Newgate, Vauxhall, Cheapside, Blackfriars, Kensington, Chelsea...Find yourself a paperback copy of it to read between jaunts around the city and visits to pubs, and your next trip to London will be immeasurably enriched.

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    English Language Generally

    English: History, Diversity, and Change by David Graddol, Dick Leith, and Joan Swann. (Routledge, 1996.) A nice broad-based guide to the language. Includes articles about the origins of English, English as a national language in various countries, varieties of English (differences in syntax, regional accents etc.), stylistic variation, orthographies of English, judgments of good and bad English and their role in society.

    Words and their Ways in English Speech by J.B. Greenough and G. L. Kittredge. (MacMillan, 1901.) A good traditional sourcebook (in fact many later books take much of their material from this compendium) for discussion of borrowings, of semantic change, fossil morphemes, and other aspects of English. The lists of borrowings at different periods are very extensive. Although published at the turn of the 20th century (and for a long time used as a college English textbook), much of the material is hardly dated.

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    Language Change

    Language Change: Progress or Decay? by Jean Aitchison (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1991) A well-written, lucid overview of language change for non-specialists. This is a very, very good book.

    Linguistic Change, An Introduction to the Historical Study of Language by E.H. Sturtevant. A general introduction to language change, with good chapters on change of vocabulary and change of meaning. The other chapters help set the study of vocabulary into the study of language change as a whole. Watch Sturtevant's opinions about other cultures however: he kept the 19th century opinion about "primitive" vs. "advanced" cultures which 20th century linguists and anthropologists have long abandoned.

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    Authors of Books on Word and Phrase Origins

    Ivor Brown Wrote many small handy books about word origins. (See Fondren's collection of his books, which is substantial.)

    Eric Partridge Author of many books on language and etymology, including his classic Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. (New York: MacMillan).

    John Moore Author of You English Words, a delightful romp through the undergrowth of the English lexicon across the centuries. Approach is socio-literary. Moore writes captivatingly about the color and power of particular words, about Shakespeare's word choice (why was the guy so great anyway? Because nobody has ever equalled his brilliant and innovative use of words!) and stylistic aspects of the lexicon.

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    Language Features in Magazines

    The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a weekly column "On Language", written by William Safire for many years. It is now an occasional featurer by other columnists (Safire passed away some years ago.) The column is not just about words, but all aspects of language. The authors often write about new words and phrases coming into the language or changing their meanings. The column also addresses grammatical questions occasionally, generally sensibly. On the whole this feature is very observant, intelligent, and entertaining.

    The Atlantic Monthly has an end column on language that is useful.

    Buzzwords. A feature in Newsweek with brief descriptions of the latest buzzwords in American society. Good for keeping one's finger on the national pulse--to find out what are our concerns of the moment. (These words are often highly ephemeral and therefore evocative of a very specific period/event, but some pass into the language for the longer term.)

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    Journals about English Words and Language

    American Speech. Readable articles on various aspects of American English. Topics include well-researched word histories (like the story of 'OK'), dialectology, new words, changing grammar, etc.

    Verbatim. A newsletter for word aficionados. Edited by Lawrence Urdang.

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    Game Shows Involving English Words and Language

    Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. A news quiz show broadcast on radio live from Chicago and on National Public Radio. Available live on the radio Saturday and Sunday mornings 10:00am Central time or at other times via podcast on the National Public Radio website. The host, Peter Sagal, is very humorous! The main point of the game is humor rather than winning the game. There is often well-known guest contestant, e.g. Neill de Grass Tyson who was on the show in 2015.

    Says You, a radio quiz show about words. Also on NPR and also humorous.

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    Word Usage

    Language: the Loaded Weapon. The Use and Abuse of Language Today, by Dwight Bolinger. A wonderful book on the power of language by one of the most perceptive linguists of modern times (Bolinger died in 1991). Includes excellent treatments of metaphor/metonymy, language in advertising and the law, and linguistic prescriptivism. Bolinger advocates a sensible compromise position between hatred of all change and the anything-goes mentality that most people find anti-intuitive.

    Usage and Abusage, by Eric Partridge. (Revised edition 1994, New York: Norton and Co.). Subtitle is "How to pick the right words --and avoid the wrong ones--in speech and writing." A very handy reference for becoming aware of all the shibboleths that people will use to decide you're uneducated.

    Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (Oxford University Press, 1991). A fascinating study of the ways people use language to either minimize offensiveness, or to maximize it. Topics covered include: taboo; euphemism in addressing and naming; the lexicon of bodily effluvia, sex, and tabooed body parts; insults and other ways of being abusive; death and disease and ways of talking about these concepts. Contains graphic language (to use a euphemism!).

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    Standardization, Prescriptivism, and Social Norms of Language

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    Grammar, Prescriptive and Descriptive

    English: A Course for Human Beings by Eric Partridge. A practical introduction to English, good for brushing up on the basics of grammar. Also contains a nice chapter on English word formation processes.

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    Spelling, History of English Spelling

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    The Proto-Indo-Europeans

    In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth, by J.P. Mallory (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989). Traces the immediate origins of the various Indo-European groups, and puts the case for his hypothesized I.E. homeland, using archaeological and linguistic evidence.

    Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, by Colin Renfrew (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). Presents his very original (and still controversial) hypothesis of the Anatolian origin of the Indo-Europeans. Places the Indo-Europeans several millenia earlier in history than other scholars, presenting multiple sources of evidence. Ties the spread of the Indo-Europeans northward and westward with the spread of agriculture into Europe. A lively and readable account.

    The Kurgan culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe: Selected articles from 1952 to 1993 by Marija Gimbutas ; edited by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Karlene Jones-Bley. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph no. 18. GN776.2 .A1 G54 1997. Professor Gimbutas (pronounced with a hard g) argues that the Indo-Europeans are one and the same as the people of the Kurgan culture, who left a great deal of archaeological remains. If we can trust that the Indo-Europeans were indeed the same as the Kurgan people, then we would know a good deal about them indeed. Gimbutas places their origin at the Black Sea.

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    The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, compiled by Jonathan E. Lighter. A landmark publication, summing up 3 centuries of American slang. The compiler calls slang "the technicolor of language", an apt metaphor.

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    (refs coming)

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    Other Aspects of Words

    Words and their Meaning, by Howard Jackson. (London: Longman, 1988.) A good introduction to a wide range of issues concerning words: Lexical semantics (how to analyze the meanings of words), word relations (synonymy, antonymy, and other sense relations), collocations (frequent expressions or combinations of words), dictionaries and lexicography. Very clearly written, with useful exercises.

    Words in the Mind, by Jean Aitchison. A more psychological approach to words; describes various empirical findings (often via psychological experimentation). This is another well-written exploration of aspects of words and the lexical knowledge that speakers have.

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    © Suzanne Kemmer
    Last modified Sept 2019