Release notes: Exploring the sources of OED quotations

If you are a frequent user of the OED Online, you may have noticed a small ‘open book’ icon appearing at the end of some quotations. These are a recent addition, and link to the full text of the source from which the quotation is taken in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO).


Clicking on the book icon will open a view of the passage in which the quotation occurs. The quotation itself is usually near the middle of the passage displayed:


Use the link at the end of the passage to go to where it appears in the full text of the source in OSEO. The OSEO edition of the text now also includes links back to points in the OED where the text is quoted. which are shown in the ‘extras’ panel to the right of the main text:


At the moment, these links are limited to a fairly small set of sources, mostly from the late 1500s to the early 1800s. This includes a number of the authors and texts that OED cites most frequently, such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Milton, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and the King James Bible. We will be adding more with each quarterly update of the OED, and will also be exploring opportunities to link to other full-text resources alongside OSEO.

What are the benefits of this feature? OED’s illustrative quotations are typically quite short: about fifteen words, on average. So it’s often useful to be able to see more of the context from which the quotation is taken. That’s why the OED has always included detailed information about the source of the quotation: not only the author and title, but also chapter and page number, or equivalent. In principle, this means that a dedicated reader has always been able to look up the context of any quotation; but in practice this has often been a prohibitively laborious process, especially for texts that may not be readily accessible to most people.

Today, however, the increasing availability of electronic editions, covering a wider and wider range of historical texts, provides the opportunity to make this look-up process much simpler and more direct.

Often, the ability to look up the context may just help to satisfy curiosity. For example, when the OED’s entry for recognition quotes the following from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749):

Sensations of this Kind, however delicious, are, at their first Recognition, of a very tumultuous Nature.

one may be intrigued to know exactly what’s being referred to. The link provided to the full text makes it quick to find out. (It turns out to be from a passage describing Tom’s emotions having just discovered that his ardour for Sophia Western is reciprocated, whilst worrying not only about how Sophia’s father will react, but also about his pregnant lover Molly Seagrim. It’s worth reading for anyone who’s ever described their relationship status as ‘complicated’.)

Beyond curiosity, the source of a quotation helps to elucidate aspects of meaning, tone, nuance of the word being illustrated; or to glean more about why the author chose to use the word, what they may have been implying or alluding to, and so on: details and subtleties beyond the information that the dictionary entry itself may provide. It also enables the user to re-evaluate how the OED interprets a given usage of a word or phrase.

For example, the OED’s earliest evidence for the word literary is a quotation from Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605):

History is Naturall, Civill, Ecclesiasticall & literary, whereof the three first I allow as extant, the fourth I note as deficient.

OED’s definition reads:

Of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning (cf. literature n. 1).

Does Bacon’s literary relate to literature in the modern sense, or to letters and learning in the earlier sense? And why does he consider this ‘literary history’ to be ‘deficient’? The OED’s quotation is now linked directly to the corresponding passage in OSEO’s edition of Advancement of Learning : here one can see that Bacon goes on to lament the lack of ‘a iust story of learning’, which makes clear that Bacon was really thinking about intellectual and cultural history, rather than about literature as we understand it now. This edition also gives some useful commentary on the passage, in particular drawing attention to a marginal note in Bacon’s text:

Historia Literarum—’History of Letters’; that is, a history of intellectual culture in its various historical contexts (Rees); [Brian] Vickers would extend the meaning to a much wider sense: ‘that is, of all written records’. […]Bacon’s innovation here is, in effect, to propose a social history of knowledge.

All of this extra information helps to build up a richer picture of how the word literary came into the English language, and how its earliest usage may have differed from its later development.

The work of linking quotations to texts is at an early stage; but over time we plan to develop a more extensive set of connections between the OED and electronic versions of its primary sources – including reciprocal links back to the OED wherever possible. We hope that this will not only enhance the experience of using the OED, but also make it a more powerful and useful tool for research.

Please note that a subscription is required to use the OSEO site: see here for more information. (If you are using OED via an institutional subscription, you may find that your institution already subscribes to OSEO as well.) The ‘Context’ pop-up is available to all OED users, and does not require an OSEO subscription.