If I had to pick just one resource for the work I do, it might just have to be the Oxford English Dictionary. I purchased the OED on cd and used it very happily for years. For the past few months, I have had access to the on-line version, and find it even more helpful and easier to use. It has the added benefit of showing new and revised entries, as it is continually updated.

The OED is also in print form, multiple volumes (18 volumes?) and a two-volume compact edition, and I have neither the space, nor the eyesight to manage those.

I know the reviews for it on are not universally adulatory. I’ve never had any problem with running it on the computer, and verifying the application every three months or so is just not that onerous. And I know it’s not perfect—there are mistakes and omissions. Sometimes Eloisa James will know a word that has been used by Shakespeare, but it’s given an 18th Century date by the OED. But if the date in the OED will suit your needs, you can rest assured that your information is valid.

And the subtleties in it are excellent. For instance, in looking up “nuclear,” the original citations, dating from 1846, indicate just scientific usages in cell formation. But by 1912, the usage has expanded to meaning “central” or “cardinal” in issues of phonics and linguistics. I’ve found many such terms, in which a specific scientific usage gradually expands to a general vocabulary, and you have to decide when your character would have learned the term.

It’s also very useful as a dictionary of slang and idiom. “Last resort” meaning a final attempt, is 1950, but “last gasp,” meaning almost the same thing, is first cited in 1921. It also provides geographic origin, and you would do well to avoid anything labeled “American slang” in your Regency-set novel.

As a caveat, because the spelling is British, with “theatre” rather than “theater” and so on, you will still need an American dictionary, online or in print, to verify the actual spelling of a word. Rather ironic. (1630, per OED.)

Badcock, John. Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the varieties of Life, Forming the Completest and Most Authentic Lexicon Balatronicum Hitherto Offered to the Notice of The Sporting World, for Elucidating Words and Phrases that are necessarily, or purposely, cramp, mutative, and unintelligible, outside their respective Spheres. Interspersed with Anecdotes and Whimsies, with Tart Quotations, and Rum-Ones; with Examples, Proof, and Monitory Precepts, Useful and Proper for Novices, Flats, and Yokels. London: T. Hughes, 1823.  Okay. That’s just the title page. Then there’s the thirteen page introduction. Then the fun begins.  The chatty discussion of phrase origins, and the hilarious examples of word usage make for hours of entertaining reading.  Here’s one: All-agog–women are so affected when they expect marriage, a trip to the fair, or the playhouse; Derived from the goggle of their eyes on such-like occasions. (This is a print-on-demand book.)

Farmer, J. S. and Henley, W. E. Slang and Its Analogues. New York: Arno Press, 1970. This was originally published between 1890 and 1904. So you won’t find anything less than a century old here, and it doesn’t always give the linguistic origins of a word of phrase. But still a valuable tool in your word search.

Grose, Francis. The Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. Chichester: Summersdale Publishers, Ltd., 2004. This is available in a number of editions (first published in 1785) also under the title The Vulgar Tongue. This will provide all the deliciously vulgar terminology to spice up your dialogue. You’ll try to find ways just to use some of these hilarious and insightful terms. I’ve heard that it’s somewhere on the web, indexed, which would be fabulous. Please tell me if you find it there.

Hendrickson, Robert. QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts of File, 2004.

Partridge, Eric. Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Paul Beale, ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1990. There are a variety of works by Eric Partridge (1894-1979) dealing with this topic, and all are helpful. Most libraries will have some of his books.

LeRoux, Philbert. Joseph. Dictionnaire comique satyrique, critique, burlesque, libre et proverbial. (1718-1786) Barsi, Monica, ed. Paris:  Honore’ Champion Editeur, 2003. I only found out about this book because Francis Grose mentioned it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. This will give you all the cant and idioms common in pre-Revolutionary France. Because it’s all in French, some knowledge (probably more than I have) is really necessary to find your way around in it.  Just found this site, and it provided just the answer I need. Give it a try.   Here’s one that has to do with navy lingo, by the century. I shared it with Joanna Bourne, who remarked that her characters frequently climbed onto ships without her permission, and perhaps this would help them find their way about.


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