Before the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) defines a word, it first assembles all the evidence from the DOE Corpus for that word's usage. The first step of this process is lemmatization: assigning word forms to a certain headword. For example, Modern English word forms such as burn, burns, burning, burnt, and burned all belong to the infinitive to burn.
Old English has a wealth of attested spellings for each word. First, it is an inflected language. Its words change substantially by tense, number, or case. Second, unlike Modern English, its spelling is not standardized; depending on region or dialect, one word can be spelled in many different ways. Lemmatizing words appropriately--assigning the right word forms to a headword and a definition--takes care and patience.
The DOE uses both digital tools and human editing. First, graduate assistants use an in-house concordance and lemmatization program to assign all spellings that occur in Old English to the list of headwords selected by the DOE's editors. Once spellings have been assigned to headwords, the DOE's drafting editors check the results, examining each spelling in its Old English context and making sure it is assigned to the right headword.
Editors draft entries based on all the textual evidence of the DOE Corpus--that is, all spellings of the word and all the citations from the corpus where the word forms occur. As drafting editors compose word definitions, they consult the entire Old English corpus for uses of their headword; they look at manuscript facsimiles; they trace parallels and related words in Latin, Old Norse, Old High German; and they consult primary texts and secondary research on Old English language and Anglo-Saxon history and culture.
Graduate assistants at the Dictionary of Old English need thorough knowledge of Old English, Latin, and Paleography. At the Dictionary, they work with the whole range of Old English texts: literary texts, homilies, gospels, charters, even medical texts.
Graduate assistants lemmatize words--that is, assign spellings to headwords based on sense and context. In addition, graduate assistants also proofread word entries, suggest Latin sources based on their own research, and check Old English citations against editions and manuscripts.
Proofreading DOE entries involves, in the words of Catherine Monahan, "a huge amount of picky detail." But this means that the copy-editor has the chance to "pick up something that someone else has missed"; or, in correcting the work of earlier dictionaries, to "lay a verbal ghost to rest." Finally, the DOE Corpus--which offers far greater variety than the canonical literary texts studied in most Old English university courses--there is always the opportunity to reach out and touch the past.
"I remember reading this text," says Catherine Monahan, "and it was a charter or a will, one of these texts that are not commonly read. But the amazing thing was how typically human it showed the Anglo-Saxons to be. There were two brothers. One had a piece of land. And clearly, there was bad blood between the brothers, because the landowner was practically willing to give it away to to any passer-by before he gave it to his brother. You could see that in the charter. And I thought: things really haven’t changed in more than a thousand years." (Interview, February 20, 2014.)
After being proofread and revised, as needed, by graduate research assistants, copy editor, revising editor, and editor- in-chief, dictionary entries are published, one letter at a time, through the online Dictionary of Old English.