Week 5 Blog Prompt: OED exercise

Like your recent close reading blog, this week I’m asking you to engage in an activity that will build towards your first major paper. Your task this week is to analyse the use of a single word in any of the three fictional texts we’ve studied so far this semester (‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’, ‘The Matter of Seggri’ and The Female Man), using the Oxford English Dictionary and any other sources you like to figure out what that word is doing in an excerpt from the text. I really encourage you to pick a word that’s in the excerpt you plan to analyse for your Paper 1! Details below the break …

Close-up of World's Smallest Dictionary, approximately 1in square, held between a person's left thumb and forefinger in front of a red background.

Image: “Kit” (Flickr user practicalowl)

This blog prompt asks you to follow a set procedure. Please read the instructions all the way to the end, but do the actual writing of it at the times and in the order specified. You are documenting an investigation here: think of it like filling in a lab notebook in a science class, which you are always asked to do as you go. You will find it easier to compose this post on scrap paper or in another document.

Begin by locating a word to analyse. You’ll want to find a word which seems important, unusual or ambiguous in some way — word choices which strike you as unexpected are often a good option for this kind of treatment. Write down your word and a couple of sentences about it: where is your word in the text? (Think: 10-second summary of the surrounding action.) What do you understand it to mean? What, if any, ambiguities do you see in its use? What effect does it have in your chosen passage?

Next, go to the Oxford English Dictionary (direct link; UT login required) and enter your word. Read through ALL the meanings of it. You may find that your word exists in noun, verb or adjective forms, regardless of how it is being used in your text — do skim over the other forms, but it’s OK to focus your attention on the way it’s used in your excerpt. Write down an overview of the different meanings of your word: was your understanding of the word’s current meaning correct? Has the word’s meaning and usage changed over time? Does the word have multiple meanings*? Where does the word come from? What else strikes you about the definitions and etymologies listed in the OED?

If you would like to consult other sources for this step, you are free to do so — but you are required to use the OED, so other sources should be an addition to, not a substitution for it.

Large dictionary on stand; library reading room in the background.

Stand dictionary in the Bates Reading Room, Boston Public Library. Image: Trevor Pritchard, Flickr user tcp909

Now, go back to your excerpt. Does any of your newfound knowledge enrich your understanding of how the word functions in your chosen excerpt? If the word’s meaning is ambiguous, could both meanings apply or does one seem more likely? Do you find more shades of meaning in the excerpt in light of what you’ve learnt? Has your understanding of the author’s meaning changed entirely? Write down a new short analysis of the word’s function in your excerpt which uses the information you found in the OED. What do you now understand the word to mean? How do you now understand the word to function in your chosen excerpt?

Finally, take a couple of minutes to reflect on your own research process. What was fruitful or not fruitful for you in doing this kind of structured, guided research process? How might you adapt this process to be more useful to your own research practices? Or how might it contribute to the way you work? You do not need to post your responses to these questions on the blog, but you can. It will nonetheless be useful to you to write them down and you may want to refer to them for your last guided blog post of the semester, when you’ll be asked to critically reflect on your evolution as a reader, writer, thinker and scholar. (As with the kind of product-focussed self-evaluation we practice in peer review, self-reflection is an important part of your education at university — and learning to examine your own ideas and practices closely will go further than just about anything else we learn in the class, so I lean on it pretty hard.)

* For fun with multiple meanings, look up the word ‘cleave’ in a dictionary sometime.

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