A most excellent research tool

Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.

Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.

I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.

“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.

Win some; lose some.

The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.

Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.

But the OED is an awesome starting point.

So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2

Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .

  1. According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s. []
  2. Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be. []


  1. Jennifer on #

    I LOVE the OED! I get the OED Word of the Day, so it makes me happy even when I’m not doing research for anything specific!

  2. Brendan Podger on #

    I have always wanted the complete 24 volume Complete Oxford on my bookshelves though. Perhaps when I am rich and have a proper library.

  3. joanna on #

    Yay for the OED! I would just like to point out that many public library systems subscribe to the OED (and other amazing subscription-only online research sources); enter your library card number on your library website and you get access for free! (I particularly love the “Lost for Words?” button. My co-worker and I decided that the OED is an excellent fortune-telling device: ask an open-ended question and click on “Lost for Words”, and the OED will answer your question! This is what happens when library folk hang out…)

  4. veejane on #

    I was doing some research into primary sources of the 1840s, and discovered to my considerable hilarity that the word “bug” (as in flying pests) was well into common usage by 1846. For some reason I had thought it was a modern word.

  5. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I think you just nailed why I do not write historical works. I have a hard enough time thinking of words to write. I do not need the added annoyance of being told I cannot use those words.

  6. Jude on #

    What you really need to take a look at is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). You can look at samples on their website at: http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/dare/dare.html
    I’m pretty sure it’s only available in print, but most larger public and all academic libraries should have it. From it, I learned that my step-grandfather, who was from Tennessee, was using a regionalism when he referred to the common nighthawk as a “bullbat.” It’s an amazing resource. I also love reading online newspapers, like the ones available at coloradohistoricnewspapers.org or the Library of Congress Chronicling America website http://www.loc.gov/chroniclingamerica/
    Can you tell I’m a librarian?

  7. Justine on #

    Jude: DARE is totally only available in print. Which, frankly is INSANE. I would pay a lot for a digital version. And I suspect I am not alone.

    As it’s a resource I would be using EVERY SINGLE DAY going to the library every time I need to look something up isn’t practical. And buying my own copy is impossible because the damn thing is simply too big and bulky for me. There’s literally no where in this flat it would fit. (This flat cannot handle another volume of manga let alone a bloody huge multi-volume dictionary!) And forget about carting it back and forth between Sydney & NYC. The publishers seriously need to get a clue.



  8. Lisa Gold on #

    Hi, Justine. According to the editors of DARE, there will eventually be an electronic version, but it won’t be available until after all of the print volumes have been published. (Volume V is scheduled for 2010, followed by a supplementary volume with indexes and maps.)

  9. Amber on #

    A couple years ago one of my professors had each of us in the class look up a word in the OED. It was actually very interesting, though I haven’t been back much. I enjoy looking at the newly added words the most! I don’t think I’ll ever do a historical fiction story, but it’s good to know if I ever want to.

  10. Nicholas Waller on #

    The OED occasionally uses non-print cites, like recordings (a Monty Python album was a cite for the phrase “something for the weekend, sir”? I think) and handwritten diaries (first deployment of the sexual-approval term “phwoar!”(sp) from a teenage girl’s diary entry about her teacher). But they have to be dateable.

    Both of these bits I gathered from a BBC TV series called Balderdash and Piffle, which publicised the OED’s Wordhunt operation, wherein they encourage the public to send them earlier-than-currently-listed citations of words and phrases.

    On another tack, someone called Ammon Shea spent a year reading the entire OED and then wrote a book about it. He found most of it interesting, but “the letter Q was boring as hell. And I didn’t much care for X either.”

    He has some favourite words… I see that due to your 6-monthly New-York Sydney travels you’re not likely to experience one of them: apricity (Apricity – The warmth of the sun in winter).

    Some others:

    Father-waur – Being worse than one’s father
    Peracme – The point at which one’s prime has passed
    Postvide – To make plans for an event only after it has happened
    Velleity – A mere wish or desire for something, unaccompanied by any action of effort.

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