100 Years of OMG!


Tomorrow is an august day in the history of the English language.  (Although, really, isn’t every day?)

Tomorrow, 9 September 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the earliest documented example of a writer using the acronym OMG as a boiled-down version of the exclamation “Oh! My god!”   It most definitely predates the Internet.

How do we know this?  The OED tells us so.   The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which is available online to Washington and Lee students, faculty, and staff, points to a letter written by J. A. F. Fisher on 9 September 1917:

  • 1917   J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78   I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!

You may read further to discover that the editors of the OED have found no other uses of the term in print for nearly 80 years — John Arbuthnot Fisher was ‘way ahead of his time.     You also may find Lord Fisher’s original quotation in his volume Memories, courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Popular Words in Dark Days


The current news of the day often inspires readers to consult their dictionaries to clarify the meaning of a “hot” word.   Bigot, for instance.

One of the W&L University Library’s online dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, maintains an ever-changing list of the words most looked-up in their database in recent hours and days.   The week following events in Charlottesville began with some of the likeliest suspects (below)…  but linguine?    (Please note that the “Past 24 hours” list changes daily, so linguine‘s day in the sun was very brief.)
Use the the link above to check out each day’s list.


Merriam-Webster Unabridged is one of three preeminent English-language dictionaries available online to W&L researchers, the others being the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English.   Each is available through the library catalog and various locations in our website, such as this research guide page.    You can get different perspectives on a word such as bigot by checking each of these renowned sources.


Not Our First Eclipse


You don’t have to be a science geek, much less an umbraphile,  to appreciate the rarity of a good solar eclipse.   Still, the hype surrounding the upcoming event might lead one to believe that this will be the Washington and Lee community’s first opportunity to experience a solar eclipse.  Not so.

Depending upon local sky conditions, observers in Virginia and elsewhere in the region on Thursday 30 May in 1984 were able to view an annular eclipse of the sun, with about 99% of the sun covered by the moon.  In fact, the area of greatest eclipse during the event was in eastern Virginia and the Richmond Times Dispatch provided significant coverage in its 31 May issue.   (Access to this issue is provided to current W&L students, faculty, and staff through the University Library’s  subscription.)    Broader coverage of the event in the southern U.S. was published in this New York Times article , which included the news that schoolchildren in Atlanta were kept indoors during the eclipse.   (Note: It is not customary for the New York Times to give away their archived content without requiring payment, but this story appears to be available online free-of-charge.)

On the W&L campus, the effects of the eclipse began to be noticeable during that year’s baccalaureate service, which was held in Evans Dining Hall in those days.   At least some folks can recall leaving the ceremonies and noting the dusk-like lighting and the peculiar effects of the increasing eclipse on shadows beneath trees on the University’s front lawn.

One interesting sidelight on the Richmond Times Dispatch coverage cited above:  An article near the bottom of the 31 May front page concerns Jeffrey Scott Gee, the first-ever W&L valedictorian to graduate with a GPA over 4.0.  Commencement took place the day after the solar eclipse.

One final note: Since the eclipse occurred at the very end of the school year, there was no article in the student newspaper Ring Tum Phi to offer any accounts.   However, there was a highly unusual issue of the Phi a few weeks later in July, one offering absolutely no coverage of atmospheric events, but with some other ground-shaking news.   (Online access provided by the University Library’s Digital Archive database of the Ring Tum Phi.)

Maybe this month’s eclipse also will portend some good news.   Fingers crossed.




Dunkirk And “Normal” Life


Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, is making quite a splash as an unusually serious “summer movie.”   Many commentators, especially in the UK, are finding it useful to compare those events and that spirit to the contemporary Brexit controversy, as witnessed in this harvest from Google.

Washington and Lee researchers have the ability to look at contemporary accounts of Dunkirk through a number of resources, perhaps most importantly through the coverage of that preeminent British newspaper, The Times, via the University Library’s subscription to the Times Digital Archive.

Current W&L students, faculty, and staff may utilize the database’s “Browse by Date” option to examine individual issues of the newspaper from during the height of the 1940 Dunkirk crisis, 27 May – 5 June.   Of course, it also is possible to search for the word Dunkirk, but that is likely to miss quite a few germane articles, such as this one from 1 June 1940.

Despite the dramatic events happening just off the English Channel shore, a modern researcher cannot help but notice that other aspects of life in 1940 England are continuing as before.   For example, as one can read, in the midst of the Dunkirk fighting and rescue, over 30,000 were in attendance in London to see West Ham defeat Fulham 4-3 in a football/soccer match leading up what was billed as the “Football League War Cup Final.”

Other contemporary accounts from British and American newspapers are available to W&L researchers from the University Library’s Newspapers and Magazine Databases collection.   If you have questions, please feel free to contract Dick Grefe, Senior Reference Librarian.




Dictionary of American Regional English Online


Where is it “pop” and where is it “soda?”

To authoritatively answer this and other enduring questions, the Washington and Lee University Library recently acquired online access to what one scholar has referred to as “the greatest American lexicographical project of the latter 20th century,” the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).  

As the title implies, DARE focuses on that rich and raucous sub-set of English sometimes known as “American English.”   This digital product inherits and builds on the decades-long work which gave birth to the six-volume printed set, the first volume of which appeared in 1985 and which the W&L library owns in its entirety.   DARE does not dare try to explain all known words in the English language and is not intended to be comprehensive in its coverage of English words used within the confines of the United States.   Its scope is much narrower, as stated in the Introduction to the original volume:

  • (1) Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is not used generally throughout the United States but only in part (or parts) of it, or by a particular social group, is to be included.
  • (2) Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is distinctively a folk usage (regardless of region) is to be included.

The research contained within DARE actually began in the 1880’s, with the founding of the American Dialect Society.   Most of the material, however, was gathered from 1965 to 1970 as fieldworkers (mostly University of Wisconsin graduate students) gathered about 2.5 million survey responses from communities across the U.S.   Newer material is grist for the database, even as the publication struggles to cope with draconian budget cuts in the Wisconsin higher education system.    For more on the history of the project (to 2011), see this article from Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities (irony?).    More recent information on the precariousness of the project’s funding can be found in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Other media outlets, scholarly and otherwise, often mine DARE for stories, such as a piece from Mental Floss on colorful synonyms for the verb vomit.   (Yes, “ralph” is in the house.)   More scholarly uses abound, as in this article on Emily Dickinson, and Google Scholar can harvest boocoodles  of applications.  And as the Wall Street Journal pointed out,   “DARE has even been used to solve crimes.  Roger Shuy, a retired forensic linguist, recounted the case of a child abduction in which the kidnapper left a note demanding ransom of $10,000, directing:  ‘Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip’ at the corner of two streets.   The kidnapper tried to disguise his education with “kan” (elsewhere spelling “precious” correctly), but “devil strip” is a term for the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the roadway, one used solely in a small area around Akron.  When law enforcement’s suspect list included just one educated man from Akron, the police got a confession.”

And if you like the sound of regional/local accents…  One delightful aspect of the 1965-1970 fieldwork was securing audio of over 1,300 people from communities across the country, each reading the same brief story, “Arthur the Rat.”   You can generate links to about 1,382 of these recordings by going to this site, clicking on  “Search the Collection” on the left side of the page, and then entering “arthur the rat” (including the quotation marks).     If you want to focus on a particular area, you can narrow the search, such as “Arthur the rat” AND Virginia.    (There is one item from a 72-year-old white male in Lexington, Virginia in 1968!)

 I could go on.

The DARE site is a multi-faceted research tool, with lots of fascinating content, but is hampered by a somewhat byzantine organization (perhaps leading to confusement) .   They are working on it.   The entire database is available to current W&L students, faculty, and staff from both on-campus and off-campus locations.   So, experiment and explore to your heart’s content — it may be the perfect thing to do on a hot summer day, as you listen to the chitterdiddles outside.   If you have questions, contact Senior Reference Librarian Dick Grefe.


The Best Films of the Century


A lot of folks have seen a recent feature in the New York Times in which two eminent critics identify their choices as the best 25 films of the 21st century… so far.   Naturally, this begs the question “how many of these films are available through the Washington and Lee University Library” — and, indeed, at least one member of our faculty asked that very question.

The list below answers that question.  In most cases, we have the film in DVD form and the title of the film links to our catalog, where you can find the call number.   A couple of films are accessible online through the Kanopy database for current W&L students, faculty, and staff and those direct links are labeled “online.”    DVD copies of the five “missing” films are being ordered.

Enjoy.    And feel free to argue.


There Will Be Blood

Spirited Away

Million Dollar Baby  (to be ordered)

A Touch of Sin

Death of Mr. Lazarescu   (online)

Yi Yi

Inside Out  (to be ordered)


Summer Hours

The Hurt Locker

Inside Llewyn Davis


In Jackson Heights  (to be ordered)


White Material


Three Times

The Gleaners

Mad Max: Fury Road


Wendy and Lucy

I’m Not There  (to be ordered)

Silent Light   (online)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The 40-Year-Old Virgin  (to be ordered)


Honors Thesis? Senior Thesis? Capstone Paper?


Washington and Lee University students completing major projects, especially honors theses, senior theses, and capstone papers, are invited to submit a digital copy of their work to the University Library to become a permanent part of W&L’s institutional history.

The University Library has worked for over a century to save and preserve students’ theses.   From the oldest thesis in our possession, through former W&L President Ken Ruscio‘s student thesis, and all the way to 2016 honors theses, we provide permanent preservation and access.   As one might expect, we emphasize digital copies of recent works.   Each student author, if he/she chooses, can select conditions for availability — freely-available online access, restricted online access to members of the W&L community only,  or available only after an initial embargo period.   Archived digital works will be available online at a permanent, stable URL in our Digital Archive.

We are particularly interested in honors theses, senior theses, and capstone project papers, but other student works, as well.   Students should use our online submission form to share a digital copy.   There is no particular submission deadline, but likely the sooner, the better.

The University Library no longer has a role in binding paper copies of student papers, but students may contact the University’s Copying Services for assistance.

Questions should be directed to Cindy Morton, Digital Services Manager (mortonc@wlu.edu) or Tom Camden, Head of Special Collections and Archives (camdent@wlu.edu).


Mining Streaming Video — and Finding W&L


The Washington and Lee University Library’s Kanopy streaming video service gives the W&L community (current students, faculty, and staff) online access to over 25,000 videos — documentaries, international features, cinema classics, etc.   And the database just got bigger, as Kanopy’s April update identified dozens of newly-available films.

Please feel free to browse and watch as much as you would like, whether on-campus or off-campus.    You never know what you might find.

For example, it was great to discover the wonderful award-winning documentary Ulises’ Odyssey, crafted by W&L alumna Lorena Manriquez (’88).

It also turns out that Kanopy includes over 2,500 programs from the Great Courses collection.   It’s not everything from that acclaimed series;  for instance, it omits Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance, taught by W&L’s own George Bent, the Sidney Gause Childress Professor in the Arts.   However,  Kanopy does include two courses featuring W&L Provost and Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English Marc Conner —  The Irish Identity and How to Read and Understand Shakespeare.

If you find any more films in the Kanopy database which feature members of the extended W&L community, would you please notify Senior Reference Librarian Dick Grefe.  Thanks.


“Official” New Words


Oxford University Press, with considerable justification, states that the Oxford English Dictionary “has been the principal dictionary of record for the English language throughout the lifetime of all current users of the language.”  In short, for anyone interested in the history of English-language words, the OED pretty much is the Holy Grail.   For example, the earliest documented use of the word “grail” was around 1330 AD.

First published as a “complete” work in 1928, the OED (originally known at A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles) is a living, breathing ongoing project, keeping track of recently-minted words and meanings, as well as monitoring new research than can update existing entries.   Four times each year, the editors release a list of new words, phrases, and meanings, always an occasion for fascination and media coverage.   The March 2017 list is no exception.

Please note that there are no direct links from this new list into the dictionary’s entries, since the publication is a commercial enterprise.   However, current members of the Washington and Lee community (students, faculty, staff) can consult the OED to their hearts’ content through the University Library’s subscription link.   Printed copies of the first edition (1928) and second edition (1989) are available in the library collection.

Beware of pogonophobia.



Rockbridge Advocate World Headquarters


It is not often that a commercial newspaper publishes a substantial article about another newspaper.   Nevertheless, readers of the Roanoke Times likely noticed a recent piece about the Rockbridge Advocate, the beloved and ongoing creation of Washington and Lee alumnus Doug Harwood (’74) .   Lexington and Rockbridge Country residents likely already know about the Advocate, but anyone who treasures traditional journalism and the “unvarnished version of events in Lexington and Rockbridge County” will enjoy this article.

One question might arise in a reader’s mind: Where might one view the entire quarter-century run of the Rockbridge Advocate?  This question is of particular interest because there is no online form of the newspaper.   Perhaps the only publicly-accessible complete archive is available in W&L’s Leyburn Library, with paper copies of every issue safely preserved in our Special Collections area.  Current issues are shelved on the Main Floor, which also houses microfilm of 1992-2003 issues.

At the moment, digitizing this local institution (the newspaper, not Mr. Harwood) is only a gleam in our eye, but we have hopes.   The library’s Special Collections staff currently is working on a project to index the contents for the use of the many researchers interested in the area’s events and personalities.