Project 1

Project 1: OED Close-Reading

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is available on-line through the library portal. It not only provides definitions of words; it also provides you a history of the word’s usage through quoted examples. Any dictionary can tell you what a word means now; the OED can tell you what a word like “nice” meant in the 16th, 18th, and 20th centuries. As you can imagine, this makes the OED a useful tool for reading non-contemporary literature. For this assignment, your goal is to use the OED to read, reread, and even transform the meaning of passages you thought you understood. After researching a few words and making note of their meaning, you will compose a short (3-4 pages, app. 800-1000 words) paper considering a range of interpretations and themes for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


  1. Make a list of vocabulary words as you read The Canterbury Tales. Aim for 5-8 words that seem significant for the text and that you think might mean more than what they seem. Keep in mind many words that look the same to us now might have meant something else entirely centuries ago.
  2. Look the words up in the OED (see screenshots below). When using the OED on-line, select “single-term search” and limit your search by century (The OED cites examples of usage from the beginnings of modern English until now, and you can chart the interesting shifts in the meaning of words. The examples, as you will see, are often from authors you will be reading). Remember that Chaucer lived from 1340-1400 around and the Canterbury Tales were written around 1387–1400.
  3. When you have found your word, look at as many forms of the word as necessary, and be sure to click on “etymology,” “quotations,” and “date chart” for maximum information. (You may need to click on “full entry” at the top.). If you can’t find your word, try different spellings. Explore the different options for searching by words, quotations, dates, etc.; try the “help” button to get a sense of the range of tools and approaches offered.
  4. Next, look for the words you have chosen in LEME, a  collection of sixteenth- and/or seventeenth-century dictionaries: What are the definitions therein? Are they the same as the definitions in the OED? Are they expressed in a similar fashion?
  5. Compile your findings as a list for submission alongside your paper. Make a document listing all the words you looked up, their different meanings (include examples from LEME and OED), and lines where they appear in Chaucer. You may also want to include your own notes, questions, ideas, and interpretations. Think of this as the beginning draft for your paper.


  1. Privately (i.e. don’t include this step in your submission), choose 2 or 3 words you think are particularly significant for a thoughtful analysis of The Canterbury Tales. Write up your observations about the meanings of the words, and discuss how this might affect your reading of poem using textual evidence. What questions do these multiple meanings raise? How do they help us understand the characters, themes, or style of the narrative?
    1. Look at the context in which your word first appears. Does it appear again? What does the word mean where it first caught your eye? What are its connotations? Does it mean something different in other appearances? What are the possible slants, or implications, or innuendos of the word? How do the different meanings influence the way you read the passage or description? How does the word impact on/complicate a larger theme? How does the word embody/implode its meaning?
  2. Write an essay (3-4 pages) in which you take us through what you see as the possible range of interpretations for 2 or 3 words, using at least one passage to illustrate your points. Use your close-reading skills to consider the options, and to explain the most likely meaning of each word in the context in which it was used.
    1. Make sure that your analysis is not superficial (“Here it means x and here it means y”). Think about the meaning and symbolism and connotations;give an insightful and original reading. The exercise will be evaluated on the basis of its thoroughness and thoughtfulness: your ability to analyze a text in critical detail and to ground your analysis in textual evidence.

Evaluation and Details

  • Due: Monday October 16 before midnight to Blackboard
  • MLA Formatting (including first page, in-text citations, and Works Cited)
  • Length: 800-1000 words
  • Style: essay (this means you should have an introduction, transitions between paragraphs, and a conclusion)
    • avoid summarizing the plot or details we all already know
    • consider an overarching argument that connects your word analyses together
  •  Value: 200 points
    • 50 points: vocabulary notes (step 5 above). Include this at the end of your paper as an appendix (after the Works Cited).
    • 150 points: analytical essay demonstrating student’s ability to make persuasive arguments using close-reading and contextual analysis
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