W.H. Auden once suggested that, for desert island reading, a good dictionary would be preferable to the greatest literary masterpiece because the masterpiece has a limited number of ways it can be read legitimately, while the dictionary can be read an infinite number of ways. Surely he had in mind the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED, as it is called.
And he was not alone: a 1910 New Statesman review of some of the early published volumes of the OED stated:
"...[The Oxford English Dictionary] would be as good a companion on a desert island as a man could hope for, as, apart from the history of the words, the quotations are endlessly entertaining in themselves. It is like having all the birthday books and literary calendars ever written rolled into one."
Smaller dictionaries will give you at most a few definitions of a word, plus, if you're lucky, a sample usage. The Oxford English, or OED as it is called, gives you the entire story of a word, starting with the part of speech, the pronunciation(s), the various forms it has taken in English, the relative frequency of use, and then the etymology. Only then do we begin to discover the various definitions a word might have, depending on the context of course. And along with each definition is a historical record of its usage, starting with the earliest written.
An example is worth a thousand words. Here is the beginning of the entry for the lovely word "autochthonous":
Pronunciation:? Brit. /ɔːˈtɒkθənəs/ /ɔːˈtɒkθn̩əs/
U.S. /ɔˈtɑkθənəs/ /ɑˈtɑkθənəs/
Forms: autochthonous, autochtonous, autocthonous.
Frequency (in current use):
Origin: Formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: autochthon n., -ous suffix.
Etymology: < autochthon n. + -ous suffix.
In sense 1b after French autochtone (1924 in this sense: S. Winogradsky, in Comptes rendus hebd. de l'Acad. des Sci. 178 1236; 1745 (as autochton ) with reference to ancient Greece, subsequently from 1762 as autochtone ).
In sense 2a after German autochthon (1858 in this sense: R. Virchow Die Cellularpathologie x. 184). In sense 3 after German autochthon (1888 in this sense: K. W. von Gmbel Grundzge der Geol. I. ii. 615).
You'll notice we haven't got a clue yet what it might mean. Well, hang on as it has a general meaning as well as being a term of art in several of the physical sciences.
First the general definition, along with the citations for its usage:
1. a. Of or relating to autochthons (autochthon n.
1804 Crit. Rev. Feb. 170 The flavour of the soil everywhere savours his [sc. Plautus'] idiomatic dialect, his domestic allusions, his autochthonous characters.
1860 J. Muir Orig. Sanskrit Texts II. ii. vii. 309 The Arians were not autochthonous in India, but came from some country to the north.
1946 Harper's Mag. Dec. 484/2 The cattle business has also supplied the West's autochthonous festival, the rodeo.
1963 D. Macdonald Against Amer. Grain 14 Folk art grew mainly from below; an autochthonous product shaped by the people to fit their own needs.
2004 H. Jacobson Making of Henry iii. 88?? His autochthonous neighbours in the Pennines.
The scientific usages follow after: microbiology, medicine, and geology. Just for fun and because I know we have at least one geologist amongst our patrons, I'll copy the section on geology:
3. Geology. Of a rock formation, sedimentary deposit, etc.: that has formed in its present position or from indigenous material. Also: of or relating to such a formation, deposit, etc. Contrasted with allochthonous adj. Cf. autochthon n. 4.
1891 H. E. F. Garnsey tr. H. zu Solms-Laubach Fossil Bot. i. 19 Others..made the entire material of the coal-seams grow in loco, adopting therefore the theory of autochthonous origin.
1916 Bot. Gaz. 62 33 Autochthonous peat (that type of peat which represents the amassing of successive generations of plants in..constant, but stagnant..water).
1935 E. B. Bailey Tectonic Ess. iii. 34 In tectonics, an autochthonous fold is one that is made of untravelled indigenous rocks.
1989 Jrnl. Petrol. 30 108 Rocks of the Antalya Unit occur..in a narrow corridor between the Alanya Nappes and the relatively autochthonous Central Taurides.
2006 A. G. van der Valk Biol. Freshwater Wetlands v. 100 Wetlands..continue to collect or channel water even as they fill in with allochthonous or autochthonous sediment.
Well now, you might think that the OED is good only for fusty, dusty words like the one above. Not so: we turned up the following just the other day:
OMG, int. (and n.) and adj.
Forms: O.M.G., OMG, omg.
Frequency (in current use):
Origin: Formed within English, as an initialism. Etymon: English oh my God.
Etymology: Initialism < the initial letters of "oh my God" (frequently as a graphic abbreviation).
The final element may sometimes represent gosh, goodness, etc.
colloquial (frequently in the language of electronic communications).
A. int. (and n.)
Expressing astonishment, excitement, embarrassment, etc.: "oh my God!"; = omigod int. Also occasionally as n.Quot. 1917 is perhaps with punning reference to the Order of St. Michael and St. George, which at this point had had no Grand Master or Chancellor for several years: these were appointed on 4 Oct. 1917.
1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78 I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the taps O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) Shower it on the Admiralty!!
1994 Re: AW: Ryan & Lorna..NOT in rec.arts.tv.soaps (Usenet newsgroup) 23 Sept. OMG! what did I say?
1997 C. Parker Joy of Cybersex 183 OMG Oh my God!
2006 Elle Girl Mar. 134/4 Is this ridiculous to anyone else Are we dreaming OMG, What is going on
2009 R. V. Kozinets Netnography x. 183 All of it blogged and microblogged and promoted with lots of omgs and lols.
2010 Nottingham Post (Nexis) 9 Dec. 15 OMG, it's Ken Barlow on my phone; I'm not worthy!
Causing or characterized by a reaction of astonishment, excitement, etc.; that might cause one to exclaim "oh my God!"
1982 Los Angeles Times 15 Jan. i. 4/5 (advt.) You'll find the season's best tangelos and tangerines now at our famous produce stalls. We spotted some marked O-M-G Tangelos, about the biggest we've seen.
1999 OMG! Chicago 8/19 in alt.music.s-mclachlan (Usenet newsgroup) 20 Aug. She stood at the corner of the stage with this 'girly' happy OMG face.
2007 Houston Chron. (3 Star ed.) (Nexis) 31 July (Business section) 1 The iPhone is a very different device, and when you first start working with it, there's definitely an OMG! effect.
OMG! It dates back to 1917!
OK, it's your turn: get out your library card, go to the top of any Takoma Park Library page (takomapark.info), click on Online → Research; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias → Oxford English Dictionary.
Then click on the link at the top right "Already a subscriber" and a little pop-up window will appear. On the right side under "Library Account," there is a space for you to type in your library card barcode (without spaces). Click "Sign In" and you will have the great and venerable OED literally at your fingertips. Happy desert island reading!
Note: the Auden quote is from The Dyer"s Hand & other essays, p. 4.