While pondering what classes to take my last semester in college I seriously considered a course in lexicography. What is lexicography you ask? The act of writing dictionaries. A noble act indeed. For a few days I could think of no better way to spend a semester than examining the intricacies of dictionary writing. My mind's eye saw bushy eyebrowed zealots amidst piles of words and a gilded scale of linguistic judgment. While my interest in taking the course thankfully waned, my interests in dictionaries did not.
The Austin Public Library offers the Oxford English Dictionary Online. The OED Online is an incredibly dynamic resource. Oxford University Press continues to provide paramount etymology and has now integrated their groundbreaking Historical Thesaurus into OED Online. A search for a specific word will now retrieve all known historical spellings, first noted usage of each spelling, as well as similar words used throughout the centuries (one of my favorite words alacrity first appeared in the English language in 1510 and was spelled alacritee). OED Online now also offers a filter search, which allows you to narrow or broaden your word nerd conundrums. Using your Austin Public Library card number you may access OED Online from just about any computer in the world.
If digital dictionaries aren’t your cup of tea, we have you covered as well. You may peruse all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary at the Faulk Central Library. It does not check out though. It weighs 130 pounds.
An interesting related read is The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book tells of the nineteenth century idea to create the seminal dictionary and the thousands who assisted in the dictionary's creation. Noted scholars responded to the call, but one contributor remained unique: an American expat confined to an asylum contributed thousands of entries.