Scholars Have Been Working on a Dictionary of Old English For 46 Years

Dictionary of Old English
Dictionary of Old English / Dictionary of Old English

The English language’s long history has yet to be fully written, and in fact, experts are still just working on the glossary. Since 1970, a group of scholars has been creating a comprehensive corpus of Old English words and their uses, and it’s still far from finished. The Dictionary of Old English, as featured in the latest issue University Affairs, aims to catalog every English word in use between the year 600 and 1150. In the process, the scholars are also digitizing versions of every known surviving text in Old English (think Beowulf, rather than Chaucer or Shakespeare). 

The project, based at the University of Toronto’s Center for Medieval Studies, has been ongoing for 46 years. The six staffers involved are currently working on the letter H, searching for every single surviving use of words like heofon and hell. The plan is to finish the letter by the end of 2016, but it’s a more involved task than you might imagine—heofon ended up having 10 definitions that spanned 70 pages with citations. Just the letters A through G took 25 years to complete. 

While the online dictionary is subscription based, you can get up to 20 free visits a year. The project also has a “Word of the Week” email newsletter. You can read more about the history of the project from University Affairs.

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