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story.lead_photo.caption The Oxford English Dictionary has a thorough listing for the word “thorough.” - Photo by Celia Storey

The Oxford English Dictionary is not for lightweights.

The 20-volume set gives details on more than 600,000 words. Each entry goes beyond a mere definition. It also reveals the history of a word, its usage over time and quotations using the word, so that you can grasp the context. Think of every synonym for "thorough." Painstaking, exhaustive, consummate. They describe the OED.

Work on the tome began in 1857 and when completed in 1928, it had a mere 10 volumes. It reached 20 volumes in 1989. The online version contains many more words than the print edition and weighs a lot less.

I do not own a set. I've seen only one in person. The Oxford University Press website, where the set sells for about $1,000, has a photo, in case you're curious.

Online, you can subscribe to the OED for $295 a year. But the website gives tempting free peeks at the content, and I enjoy reading these.

The OED taught me about lemmas. A lemma is the most basic form of a word. Some lemmas stand as is, and the most common of these are "the," "of," "and," "to" and "that."

"Tickle" is the lemma for other forms: tickling, tickled, ticklish.

Some lemmas behave themselves and create other words in regular ways. "Fish" becomes "fishes" and "fishing."

But others are more ornery. "Go" becomes "goes" but also "went."

This is why a child might say, "He teached me" rather than "He taught me." The child hasn't yet learned the irregular verb use.


Few spelling guidelines work in every case, but having a little spelling help is always good.

This one is for deciding whether consonants should be doubled when you tack on "-ing" or "ed."

And it's a specialized rule, because it works with only the letters L, T and R, as far as I can tell. How can you remember that? Think of the consonants in the word "letter."

If you're taking the lemma of a word that ends in "r," for example, and adding an "ed," you have a guideline for whether that "r" gets doubled. If the accent is on the first syllable of the word, you use one "r." If the accent is on the second syllable, you double the "r."







Another thing to remember is that it works only when the original word has only one final consonant with only one vowel before it.

I did say it was a specialized rule.

Give it a try next time. But check the dictionary to see whether it worked.


Many people clip coupons. (I believe the critical step is remembering to take them to the store with you.) I read that the word comes from the French root meaning "to cut." It has the same root as coup d'e tat, meaning "stroke of state," or cutting out a leader.

I thought the "cutting" might apply to the cost savings that a coupon can get you. But it refers to the actual part that is clipped off, the slip of paper that will get you a discount.


Reach Bernadette at

ActiveStyle on 05/29/2017

Print Headline: Lemma of words rest in 20-volume OED set


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