The Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium.
The OED is a guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past. It traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books. The OED covers words from across the English-speaking world, from North America to South Africa, from Australia and New Zealand to the Caribbean. It also offers etymological analysis and listing of variant spellings, and shows pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The OED can be particularly useful to help you to understand the use of terms who's meanins may have change over time since the publication of a piece of literature, or in response to its use in a work of literature. For example, in George Orwell's novels, there are many examples where Orwell may use a common word or phrase in an uncommon manner. Of particular interest might be a term such as "big brother", which the OED tells us was used to refer to "A person, state, etc., resembling an elder brother, esp. in having a position of authority or care, or a protective role, with respect to others" as far back as 1837. However, in addition to this, the OED gives a specific definition related to Orwell's novel 1984: "[After the name given to the head of state in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-four.] Usu. with capital initials. A political or administrative authority, esp. the State, exercising strict supervision of and total control over people's lives; (hence) the agencies, institutions, etc., used by such an authority to monitor and control people's behaviour".
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