Why the OED’s Word of the Day is special

By Craig Leyland

The OED displays the richness of the English language in a way no other dictionary can, which makes the word of the day a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is interested in English to discover some of its hidden treasures. It can also work as an introduction to the OED for those who have not had the opportunity to learn about it before, or can be a daily reminder of its worth for those who have already learned to love it.
Each word is carefully selected for a particular reason, whether it has an interesting etymology, a long and fascinating history, or sometimes simply the quality of being novel and amusing. The hope is that readers will learn something from each one: even apparently prosaic words can be revealed to have hidden depths.

What the Word of the Day provides

­Of all the reasons to subscribe to a word of the day service, the most obvious is, perhaps, a desire to learn new words, particularly unusual or amusing ones that could add spice to a vocabulary. The OED is singularly well-suited to this. With hundreds of thousands of entries available on OED Online and many more being added every three months, there is the most diverse range to choose from. One day the highlighted entry could be an old Cornish word for a coastal cave (zawn), and the next a modern cricketing term taken from Hindi (doosra). Our word of the day will regularly reveal something you never knew before.
But it is the OED’s aim to do more than simply provide novelty in the form of obscure offerings since, as a historical dictionary, the OED has so much more to offer than just weird words. Indeed, quite often such words have little beyond their immediate novelty to recommend them; their very obscurity can limit their power to do more than simply divert or amuse. Very often the most interesting words are those which seem all too familiar and which we may take for granted; words with long lives, whose meanings have changed over the years, have the power to surprise. The OED’s unique resources can bring these words to light, and show that even everyday words can have amazing histories.

Which words have the right stuff?

This effort to balance the obviously surprising with the surprisingly interesting means that words can be chosen for a variety of reasons, and we encourage readers to explore the word of the day with this in mind.
Does it have an interesting etymology? OK for example, is one of the most commonly used words in English, but its origins have been debated for many years.
Has a word’s meaning taken a strange turn over the years, or is there a particular sense of the word that is unexpected? The obsolete original sense of field bishop, ‘a hanged man’, certainly comes as a surprise.
Perhaps a seemingly modern word has a much longer history than we would have thought; we might have assumed that earthling would date from our relatively modern interest in science fiction and space exploration, but in fact it goes back to 1593, at which time it referred to an inhabitant of the earth as opposed to one of heaven.
Or maybe a term that seems more suited to a sixth-form physics class is actually something rather different; Sturgeon’s Law has nothing to do with the expansion of gases, but one man’s belief that most of everything is worthless.
Sometimes, of course, we will just choose a strange word, because we like them as much as anyone. Opportunities to call a foolish person a nodgecomb may be few and far between, but it’s still fun to learn that such a word existed in the 16th century, and still exists in the pages of the OED.
What we hope to show, though, is that even a seemingly commonplace word such as idea n. can be just as interesting, and possibly even more so. Readers are encouraged to explore its etymology, to read the story contained in the quotation paragraphs compiled to illustrate usage. Looking at a word across its whole history brings it alive. Where did it come from? When was it first used? What was its original meaning? How has it changed over the last six hundred years? These are questions the OED can answer, and this is what makes our word of the day particularly exciting for people who love the English language.


Away from this overarching aim, there are a number of practicalities to deal with when choosing the words. The word of the day is always a main entry. Though usually a single word, this still means it can be two words or more, a compound or a phrase, or perhaps an acronym or abbreviation. Nevertheless, we call it our word of the day because lexical unit of the day sounds a little dry.
Variety is important; words should be modern and ancient, from near and far. They should span the alphabet, and illustrate different parts of speech, so adverbs and adjectives get a chance to shine alongside nouns and verbs. As the word of the day is the only opportunity some readers have to access the OED, we avoid words that rely too heavily on the content of related entries. Although many people would be doubtless be amused by some of the OED’s racier or more scabrous content, others might not, so it is best to keep things family friendly as far as possible and avoid words that could cause offence.
We aim to feature those words that have been revised and published as part of the current revision programme so that the reader can get the most up-to-date information possible. Yet there is still a huge amount of information and scholarship to be found in unrevised material, so these entries also feature. Indeed, our most popular word of the day in recent months was one such word – dumbledore.
It is also desirable, on occasion, to make the word of the day topical by connecting it with a particular event or an important date, like Australia Day, Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, or the start of Wimbledon. Sometimes we’ll also have a group of words linked by a certain theme; 2011 saw clusters of words linked to Harry Potter and space travel, amongst other things, while for 2012 we have planned groups to celebrate the start of the baseball season in the US as well as the birthday of Charles Dickens.
But to say more would be to give too much away. Whatever the reason for receiving the OED word of the day, it is an excellent way to delve deeper into the riches found within its virtual pages. If you would like to join up, details are on our home page.
And in case anyone is wondering whether a subscription to the word of the day means that eventually you will receive all of the dictionary, our calculations show that yes you will – in approximately 753 years, and only if we add nothing in the meantime.