ARL Archive

Happy Anniversary OED!

oed-grabWhat up reference nerds? You may not know it, but today is a big day in lexicographical history!

According to, “On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely considered to be the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary in the English language, was published.”

The website continues:

Plans for the dictionary began in 1857 when members of London’s Philological Society, who believed there were no up-to-date, error-free English dictionaries available, decided to produce one that would cover all vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present. Conceived of as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, it was estimated the project would take 10 years to finish. In fact, it took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete–at over 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes–and published under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

As you know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of looking at one, the OED not only provides the common, present-day meanings of words. It also gives detailed etymologies and detailed chronological histories for every word or phrase contained between its covers.

Surely, working on the same project for 40 years seems like the very “definition” (heh, heh, heh) of commitment, but wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the OED was completed the editors began updating it! That effort continues today. Here’s a short history of its updates:

• A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary

• Between 1972 and 1986, an updated 4-volume supplement was published

• In 1984, Oxford University Press embarked on a five-year, multi-million-dollar project to create an electronic version of the dictionary

• In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the dictionary was released, making it much easier to search and retrieve information

• Today, the dictionary’s second edition is available online to subscribers and is updated quarterly with over 1,000 new entries and revisions.

dic-defSo, in honor of this historic day, we’re going to celebrate the only way we know how: by digging into the definition and etymology of the word fascicle.

According to my compact OED, fascicle is defined as “a bunch or bundle,” and there’s a note saying the term is “now only in scientific use” (which could explain why I’ve never encountered it). In fact, it is such an archaic and/or specialized term that the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories doesn’t even have an entry for it.

Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological History of Modern English does, however. The entry reads (in part):

1. Latin fasces, a bundle of authoritative rods, plural of fascis, a bundle.
2. Latin fascis is derived from fascio, a bundle, hence a political group, whence both fascismo, hence Fascism (how timely!)
3. Intimately related to Latin fascis is Latin fascia, a band (as in a band of cloth), and fasciare, meaning “to wrap with a band.”

Now see, this is what I love about dictionaries! Who knew that a post celebrating the publication of the OED would introduce us to the origin of the word fascist? You can’t make this stuff up … but you can read about it.

Behold the power of dictionaries!


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