Guidance on labels and date ranges: how the OED labels (really, really, really) old words
The OED offers a record of English as it has been used for more than 1,000 years and each entry tells the story of a word’s place in the English language
Within our entries, you may see reference to historical words and archaic words, Old English and Middle English, but how do our lexicographers distinguish and draw lines between words in order to label them?
Rare is typically used when there are fewer than three quotation-examples available in the databases available to our editors; and ‘now rare’ is used if the word was quite common in the past but infrequent since 1930.
Examples of ‘rare’ words include:
- Magnificous (meaning ‘magnificent’)
- Nibful (meaning ‘As much (ink) as a nib can hold; (also figurative) a small amount of writing.’)
- Nightclub (in the sense ‘To take (a person) to a nightclub.’)
- Obliviality (meaning ‘Liability to be forgotten.’)
- Rufflesome (meaning ‘ Somewhat ruffled or disordered.’)
- Vegetabilty (in the sense ‘A plant’)
Examples of ‘now rare’ words include:
- Cabbage (in the sense ‘A tailor.’)
- Netherward (in the sense ‘Downwards; to the bottom’)
- Padge (a British regional term for a barn owl)
- Yarking (in the sense ‘With up. The action of producing a piece of work rapidly or hastily; dashing off.’)
Archaic (sometimes written as ‘arch.’) is used to label words which are still current, but which appear dated in modern use (for example, thee).
Examples of ‘archaic’ words include:
- frampold (in the sense ‘Sour-tempered, cross, disagreeable, peevish. Chiefly English regional in later use.’)
- Friday-face (meaning ‘a serious or gloomy face or expression; (also) a person with such a face; a serious or gloomy person.’)
- rabbit (‘Used as a mild expletive: = drat int.’ Frequently in od rabbit it)
- quoth (in the sense ‘With direct speech: with the subject either a pronoun in the first or third person, or else a noun, indicating that the subject’s words are being repeated: said (he, etc.).’)
- wanton (in the sense ‘Of a person, a person’s will, etc.: undisciplined, ungoverned; unmanageable, rebellious. Of a child (esp. in later use): disobedient, unruly; naughty.’)
A historical label (sometimes written as ‘hist.’) is describes words used in modern times but referring back to an artefact, practice, etc., from the past—i.e. something that is no longer in existence except as viewed historically.
Examples of historical words include:
- abigail (meaning ‘A lady’s maid; a female servant or attendant.’)
- change house (meaning ‘An inn or alehouse.’ Probably with reference to the changing of horses at inns)
- pock house (meaning ‘a hospital for people with smallpox.’)
- Star Chamber (meaning ‘(The name of) an apartment in the royal palace at Westminster, in which during the 14th and 15th centuries the Chancellor, Treasurer, Justices, and other members of the King’s Council sat to exercise jurisdiction.’)
If the last discovered usage (quotation) of a word is dated 1929 or earlier, we label the word or sense as obsolete (sometimes written as ‘obs.’), unless it occurs in compounds or derivatives after this date (when we might add a note that it appears ‘now only in compounds’ or similar).
Examples of obsolete words in the OED include:
- protodaw (in the sense ‘An utter fool, a complete idiot.’)
- raiker (meaning ‘A wanderer, a traveller; a vagabond. Cf. Rome-raiker n.’)
- raise-velvet (meaning ‘Exaggeratedly and affectedly elegant.’)
- sammy-foozle (meaning: ‘To make a fool of; to cheat, con.’)
- teeny (meaning ‘Irritable, peevish; (also) malicious, spiteful. Cf. teen n.1 3a.)
- trade wind (in the sense ‘A wind that blows steadily in the same direction for a long period (as a season), esp. at sea’)
- wasteheart (‘Used to express grief, pity, regret, disappointment, or concern: ‘alas!’ ‘woe is me!’’)
Obsolete words are marked by this symbol: †
Up to 1150AD
Old English is the name given to the earliest recorded stage of the English language, up to approximately 1150AD (when the Middle English period is generally taken to have begun). It is very difficult to say when Old English began, because this pushes us back beyond the date of our earliest records for either Old English or any of its closest relatives. It refers to the language as it was used in the long period of time from the coming of Germanic invaders and settlers to Britain—in the period following the collapse of Roman Britain in the early fifth century—up to the Norman Conquest of 1066, and beyond into the first century of Norman rule in England. It is thus first and foremost the language of the people normally referred to by historians as the Anglo-Saxons.
You may spot in our etymology and quotations sections:
- eOE: ‘eOE’ (early Old English) is used for earliest times up to around 950AD
- OE: ‘OE’ is used for Old English (950 to 1100AD)
- lOE: lOE (late Old English) is used for the period 1100 to 1150.
The difficulties around OE mean that it’s difficult to be certain of what the oldest English word is, but among the earliest are some of the most familiar words in English, such as:
However, these appear in different forms (for example, shower is written as sceor in one OE quotation)
Before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the majority of the population of Britain spoke Celtic languages. In Roman Britain, Latin had been in extensive use as the language of government and the military and probably also in other functions, especially in urban areas and among the upper echelons of society. However, it is uncertain how much Latin remained in use in the post-Roman period.
The chronological boundaries of the Middle English period are not easy to define, and scholarly opinions vary. In terms of ‘external’ history, Middle English is framed at its beginning by the after-effects of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and at its end by the arrival in Britain of printing (in 1476) and by the important social and cultural impacts of the English Reformation (from the 1530s onwards) and of the ideas of the continental Renaissance.
You can search for terms that entered the English language during the Middle English period by navigating to the Advanced Search, typing ‘Middle English’ into the search box, and selecting ‘etymology’ from the drop down menu.
The OED includes more than 39,000 entries for which the first evidence of use is dated between 1150 and 1500, including:
- c1300: university, n. (meaning ‘An institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects and typically having the power to confer degrees.’)
- 1382: merlin, n.1 (meaning ‘ A small falcon, Falco columbarius, of North America and northern Eurasia, with pale brown streaked underparts, a barred tail, and a back which is slate blue (in the male) or dark brown (in the female). Formerly: spec. Falco columbarius aesalon, the subspecies found in Britain (cf. pigeon hawk n.).’)
- a1400: natatory, n. (meaning ‘A pool; a place to swim. rare.’)
- c1400: manswearing, n. (meaning ‘ The action of manswear v.; spec. perjury.’)
- a1450: napper, n.1 (meaning ‘A person who naps or habitually takes a nap.’)
- 1486: narel, n. (meaning ‘A nostril.’)
- ?a1160: peace, n. (in the sense ‘Freedom from civil unrest or disorder; public order and security.’)
You can find more information about Middle English, including details in changes in grammar and vocabulary, and information on other language influences in Medieval Britain via the link below.
Early Modern English
The early modern English period follows the Middle English period towards the end of the fifteenth century. At the start of this period English was spoken throughout England (except in western Cornwall, where it was rapidly replacing Cornish) but was frequently compared unfavourably with Latin as a literary language. The inferiority of English was often explained in terms of the mixed origin of its vocabulary, but there was a sudden change between 1570 and 1580. English began to be praised, in contrast with other languages, for its copious vocabulary, linguistic economy (in using words of mainly one or two syllables), and simple grammar.
During the seventeenth century the status of Latin rapidly declined and by the end of the century even works of science were being written in English.
The vocabulary of English expanded greatly during the early modern period. The OED includes nearly 90,000 words with a first reference from 1500-1700, including:
- 1532: metamorphosy, n. (meaning ‘a tale in which people, animals, etc., are changed in form’
- 1607: rumble, n. (in the sense ‘A low continuous murmuring, grumbling, or growling sound. (b) Such a sound produced by the stomach or intestines, or the gas contained in them, esp. as a sign of hunger.’
- 1656: abysmal, adj. (meaning ‘Of, relating to, or resembling an abyss; bottomless; profound; spec.: of, resembling, or relating to Hell; hellish.’)
- 1680: penny post, n. (meaning ‘In Britain and its colonies: a system for carrying letters and packets for a charge of a penny each, originally established c1680 for the City of London and a 10 mile radius beyond’)
- 1680: ridicule, v. (meaning ‘To subject to ridicule or mockery; to make fun of, laugh at, deride.’
- 1694: bluebird, n. (meaning ‘Any of three small hole-nesting thrushes constituting the genus Sialia, having predominantly blue plumage with (in two species) a reddish breast, native to North and Central America.’)
You can find more information about Early Modern English, including contemporary attitudes and spelling reform via the button below.
If you would like to browse words from a particular time period yourself, the Advanced Search allows you to set a time period for your search.*
*If you do not have personal access to the OED, learn more about signing in via an institution (such as a public library) here.
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