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The Word

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At play in the fields of the OED

By Jan Freeman
January 16, 2011

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When Ammon Shea spent a year slogging through the Oxford English Dictionary — a task he documented in his 2008 book, “Reading the OED” — he chose to take on the 20-volume print edition, all 21,730 pages of it. That seemed a bit masochistic, given the convenience of the OED Online, but maybe it was smart: The online version, with its colorful links and cross-references, could easily tempt a scholar into pleasant detours and blown deadlines.

If you haven’t experienced that temptation yourself, now’s your chance. Through Feb. 5, the OED Online — the world’s most comprehensive collection of English word histories, with 3 million usage examples dating back more than a millennium — is celebrating its redesign with free access for all. Want to see what King Alfred, in the year 888, thought about singular none, or discover the odd origin of bridegroom, or see the many senses of silly? Go to www.OED.com and log on, using trynewoed as both user name and password.

Where to start? The most obvious use of the OED is exploring a word’s past, so you might start by plugging in a term you’ve been wondering about — or complaining about. Trend, the verb, was at the tip of my tongue; the American Dialect Society recently named it 2010’s word Most Likely to Succeed, in its new special sense: “to exhibit a burst of online buzz.” I’ve heard objections to trend as a verb even in its older sense — “tend in a given direction” — but are those just random peeves?

The verb itself, says the OED, has a long and respectable past, as Middle English trenden, Old English trendan, and thence to Old Germanic. A thousand years ago the word meant “roll,” but by 1600 the sense had expanded; it was “to turn off in a specified direction,” as in a 1616 description of a British coastline: “The shore treandeth out more, and more.” By the 1860s, the figurative use was established: “In which direction do the sympathies and interests of the Border States actually trend?” So though Twitter’s “trending topics” may be trendy usage (and trendy itself is a mere 50 years old), trending itself is an old story.

But the old OED could have told you that. The new OED Online makes it easy to look for things you may not have known you wanted: Click “Browse” on the home page, and you’ll find options for rounding up all the words borrowed from Japanese (anime, Betamax, honcho) or Arabic (ghoul, henna, mufti), or words related to carriage-building (barouche, phaeton, side-car), or those labeled derogatory (pack rat, pap, relic, riffraff, runt).

The “Timelines” page will create a graph showing when those Japanese or Arabic or carriage-related words arrived in English. And the “Sources” page lets you see what Shakespeare, Dickens, the Daily News, and the other top 1,000 quotees have contributed. Most awesomely, the OED links to Oxford’s new Historical Thesaurus, allowing for a synonym search across the centuries. How fun is that? Well, it’s absolutely lustly (1200), thoroughly savorous (1366), utterly relishable (1605), reliably fruitive (1635), and just plain enjoyable (1743).

Even with all these goodies, you may not be ready to fork over $300 a year for an individual subscription. But check for access (and nag as necessary) at your local library, which may offer the OED Online either on-site or remotely. Meanwhile, gladsome explorations!

WOULD-BE ASSASSINS: Since last Saturday’s deadly shootings in Tucson, Jared Loughner has frequently been described as the “would-be assassin” of his apparent target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Oddly enough, that simple phrase was once a language peeve; in a 1909 usage book, Ambrose Bierce objected to “would-be assassin” on the grounds that “he who attempts to murder is an assassin, whether he succeeds or not.”

Bierce wasn’t just being cranky (as he so often was). Most 19th-century dictionaries agreed that an assassin was — in Webster’s formulation — “One who kills or attempts to kill by surprise or secret assault.” The definitions may have been phrased this way because the original assassins — the word comes from the Arabic for “hashish-eaters” — were Muslim hitmen of the Middle Ages, doped up and sent to attack leading Crusaders. Assassins, capitalized, was the collective name, for those who plotted as well as those who killed.

But the English-speaking world has no class of professional (would-be) assassins. In practice, we use assassin to mean “successful killer,” which is only logical given that assassinated means “murdered.” If we called failed killers assassins, we would surely sow confusion: A reference to “President Reagan’s assassin” or “George Wallace’s assassin” might startle even a well-informed reader.

And yet, Bierce’s peeve was repeated by Theodore Bernstein, The New York Times’s usage guru, in a 1958 usage book: “There is no such thing as a ‘would-be assassin.’ ” And as recently as 1995, a reader challenged language columnist William Safire’s use of the phrase. By then, however, our dictionaries had caught up with reality: An assassin was and is (almost always) “one who kills a famous or important person” — not one who tries and fails.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).