Word History Exploration

Description: In this assignment, students take a close look at how word meanings, context, and usage change over time. This assignment could be conducted as a series of two in-class sessions (in a computer-enabled classroom) or as an assignment with an in-class and a take-home component. It could also be conducted, with slight modification, as a group exercise for the entire class, with the instructor projecting the WWO interface from his/her own computer and students guiding the search and discussing the results.

Pedagogical goals:

  • Learn to use WWO interface features to gather information about word usage
  • Work collaboratively to frame a research problem
  • Gain an increased understanding of how language changes over time
  • Gain an increased understanding of how cultural themes are expressed in language

In preparation for the assignment, have each student identify a theme or topic of special interest (preferably in advance). These could arise from class discussion, or could be selected from a set of central topic areas associated with the course. Students could also work in small groups, each one focusing on a different theme or topic.

Next, ask each student or group to come up with a list of half a dozen words that are most closely associated with their theme. For instance, if the theme is “authority”, related words might be things like “power”, “rule”, “ruler”, “leader”, “authority”, and so forth. Have the students look up the current meaning of each word in a modern dictionary, and note any current range of meaning.

Next, have students search for each word in turn. For each word, have them look at how the word is distributed by genre (using the genre facets under the "Filter" heading on the left of the screen) and by time period (using the date facets, or using the vertical timeline ribbon). If the word only appears in later periods, consider whether there are alternate spellings that should be explored. Then ask them to look through the list of search results for examples of how each word is used in specific genres and time periods.

Looking at these results, ask the students to consider the following questions as a group:

  • What is the earliest usage of this word in the collection, and what can you tell about its meaning from the surrounding text? Is the meaning very different from modern usage, or essentially the same?
  • What is the latest usage of the word in the collection? Is its usage the same as modern usage, or different?
  • Looking at the results in between, how many different meanings of the word can you identify? In what contexts is it most often used? For instance, does it appear chiefly in texts on certain subjects in particular (religious, political, domestic, etc.)? Does it appear in any specific genre more than others (poetry, fiction, drama, etc.)? Looking within the text, is the word associated with particular contexts such as dialogue or footnotes? Is it associated with speakers of one gender more than another?
  • Can you identify any key points in the word’s history where its meaning seems to shift significantly?

After repeating this process with several words from a specific theme, ask students to consider the following broader questions:

  • Which of the terms you initially identified seem most importantly associated with your theme in the texts represented here? Did any of your initial terms not appear at all?
  • How has the language associated with your theme changed over time?
  • What might these changes reveal about the significance of your theme for understanding women’s writing?

This project can be given a more specific focus by narrowing the chronological period; to do this, include a date range in the initial search, using the bibliographic search fields.

If your class has access to a historical dictionary like the OED, it could also be interesting to look up the words there and see whether the WWO texts’ usage is consonant with the attestations given in the dictionary.