As you may know, I write historical romances. This entails a lot of research. Some of that means reading books and articles like The Regency Underworld or Black London: Life Before Emancipation or The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. That part happens mostly at the beginning of writing a book, although of course things come up throughout the process.
But the most common, nagging, never-ending question I have to ask myself when writing is: “Did people use that word yet in 1819?” And for that there are two sources that have been invaluable to me as a writer. The first one is The Online Etymology Dictionary. (The second one I won’t be writing about here, but it’s http://phrases.org.uk and while the OnlineED is great for words, it’s great for phrases and expressions. You should check it out!)
You’ll note that the Online Etymology Dictionary has the same initials as the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m pretty sure that’s not an accident. Now, this is not a replacement for the OxfordED. It has the etymology, but it doesn’t have all the definitions, and it doesn’t have the quotes (which are my favorite part of the OxED). But it does have some advantages (have you noticed yet that I like lists?):
A. It’s free. (Of course, your local library may have a subscription to the OxED, meaning you can access the website for free using your library card number. The Seattle Public Library does, and I use it probably a dozen times a day).
B. It is usually easy to find exactly what you want, because instead of listing a dozen definitions for each word it only lists the notable changes and expansions in usage of the word over time. For example, “suck” in the OxED has four entries. The entry for the verb has twenty-six definitions, most of them with multiple subdivisions. Each one has several quotes. The Online Etymology Dictionary just says:
O.E. sucan, from PIE root *sug-/*suk- of imitative origin (cf. O.S., O.H.G. sugan, O.N. suga, M.Du. sughen, Du. zuigen, Ger. saugen “to suck;” L. sugere “to suck,” succus “juice, sap;” O.Ir. sugim, Welsh sugno “to suck”). Meaning “do fellatio” is first recorded 1928. Slang sense of “be contemptible” first attested 1971 (the underlying notion is of fellatio). Suck eggs is from 1906. Suck hind tit “be inferior” is Amer.Eng. slang first recorded 1940.
Since all I actually wanted to know was that “first recorded 1928” part, this is way more efficient than wading through all 26 of those definitions. (In fact, by using the Online Etymology Dictionary, in a mere couple of minutes I was able to discover that none of the words for oral sex that I know were in use during the Regency! Unless I’m missing something. I ended up using “suck” in In for a Penny anyway, and I feel a little ashamed every time I read that sentence. If you know of a good period-appropriate word, please let me know!)
C. It compiles information from several sources, not just the OxED. (The front page says: The basic sources of this work are Weekley’s “An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English,” Klein’s “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language,” “Oxford English Dictionary” (second edition), “Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,” Holthauzen’s “Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache,” and Kipfer and Chapman’s “Dictionary of American Slang.”) This means, among other things, that
D. It contains more slang terms than the OxED (although the OxED is getting better about this all the time).
Plus, it’s all complied by a guy who started his intro page with “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.” The history of language has an irresistible romance to me, and this site is made by and for people who feel the same way.