September 13, 2006KR Blog

All hail the OED

It may be a little while before I can distill my thoughts on Jane Austen’s Persuasion into bloggable prose, particularly given Joe’s thoughtful defense of “strategic resistance” to literature this evening. For one thing, I think he’s fully on point when he writes, “At times, it’s a wonder any of us can think clearly in the presence of those plays and poems.” And it’s certainly too easy to be a fan–just as, I’d argue, it’s far, far too easy to be a foe–of any literary work. I’m neck-deep in Jane Austen right now, having just concluded a unit on Pride and Prejudice (1813) with one class, reached the midpoint of a unit on Persuasion (1817) for another, and started preparing for a student book group reading of Emma (1815). By the end of September, I think I’ll be ready to deliver some thoughts on what it’s like to plunge back into half an author’s major works all in one lucky month, particularly if (having come to Austen a bit late in literary life) one has never been a full-on devotee but still loves particular novels. For now, I’ll just call this revistation one of the perks of my job.

(And may I remind you that the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow?)

Now for the real business of tonight’s post. Here’s something I’ve been celebrating all to myself for a few weeks: the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps my favorite literary work, was named one of the “Icons of England” on August 1. The OED, first compiled between 1884 and 1928, was one of twenty things to be named an icon in this third round of announcements by ICONS Online, an organization seeking to create a composite “portrait of England” through a public process of nominations and elections. Other literary icons in this third round include Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, and Sherlock Holmes.

Rather than go into the OED‘s history, or the ICONS project’s details, I’m going to give you a tiny sketch–perhaps as if on a little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory, worked with a fine Brush–of my eleven years of life with this dictionary.

I met the OED in its twenty-volume incarnation while I was studying at the University of Exeter in 1995-96. I don’t remember how we made one another’s acquaintance. I do know that by the end of that academic year, I was devoted. I even, I glow a bit to remember, participated in a deliciously nerdy few months of mutual courtship with someone by means of obscure words we hunted out of the depths of the dictionary.

I think that I neglected my beloved–the dictionary, that is–a bit during my final year as a Kenyon English major. But during my first year of graduate school, our relationship reblossomed and moved into increasingly life-pervading channels. When I arrived at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, they produced a slim book-shaped plastic case and handed it to me. Inside was a copy of the OED on CD-ROM, which came complete with an installation program that placed a button right onto the Word95 toolbar. That magic button got me through my first graduate school essays: I’d highlight a word in my writing, click the button, and go straight to the OED entries for that word. There is, in my experience, almost no better tool for painstakingly detailed close reading than this most magisterial of dictionaries. It was a disappointment when Word97 came out and the magic button disappeared forever, one more victim of planned obsolescence.

Within a couple of years, my parents had found me a copy of the old two-volume compact OED in an antique store and purchased it for my birthday. You may be sensing (correctly) that my parents are my OED pushers; they are as in love with my love of a dictionary as I am in love with the dictionary itself, I think. And by the time they found the Compact Edition in that store, they knew enough to know that they were getting a great deal, paying only $50 (instead of the $100 that we’d seen everywhere else) for it. And it was my mom who discovered that the CD-ROM was coming out in a third edition during the year I was finishing my Ph.D. and made sure that I had all documentation in hand to qualify for the reduced-price full edition people like me had to buy instead of the upgrade, because we’d had our old CD-ROMs for so long.

Some days, if I have a moment to spare while I’m in my office (where I have online access to the dictionary–which is good, because the CD-ROM still isn’t Mac compatible, thereby rendering it useless for me at work), I’ll look up a word and then just browse around in the sidebar’s list of entries, seeking out words I’ve never heard of. “Amatorculist” is one I discovered last spring, at a moment of happy coincidence. “Amatorious” is another good one from that vicinity. And I love that the dictionary’s penultimate word is “zymurgy.”

In case you don’t know the OED‘s modus operandi: it features not only words and their etymologies and their definitions but also provides quotes that chart the changing denotations and connotations of those words over the course of their history within the English language. It’s not always perfect: the dictionary has been, since its inception, a very human endeavor (as many people have learned through Simon Winchester’s popular books about the dictionary’s creation, The Professor and the Madman [1998] and The Meaning of Everything [2003]). If you visit the ICONS page that details the history of the original dictionary’s compilation, you’ll eventually find the photograph that for me sums up the whole extraordinarily daring, messy, flawed, and beautiful endeavor that yielded what was originally to be called A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles Formed Mainly On The Materials Collected By The Philological Society And With The Assistance Of Many Scholars And Men Of Science. There’s James Murray, standing in the pigeonhole-lined iron shed he called his Scriptorium (which his eleven children, who went to work on the dictionary as soon as they were old enough to read, called the Scribby). In the background are innumerable paper slips–the results of Murray’s appeal to the English-speaking world to help compile this record of their language: “Make as many quotations as you can for ordinary words, especially when they are used significantly, and tend by their context to explain or suggest their meaning.” About 2000 people submitted slips. The editing work Murray had imagined would last for ten years instead stretched on for more than forty. Murray died thirteen years before the dictionary was completed. By 1928, the early volumes of the dictionary were already out of date, and so within five years, the dictionary’s first Supplement had been released.

Last fall, I decided to take my love affair with the OED to the next level. Preparing to teach Thomas Hardy’s 1912 poem “The Voice,” I reached the dactylic line “You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness.” “Wistlessness” was not a word I could recall having encountered, so I took the step I urge on all of my students, all the time. (Some of them come to use “to OED” as a transitive verb: “Let’s OED it.”) I looked it up in the OED.


“Wistless” is there, but not “wistlessness.” Because the dictionary is undergoing its first full revision even as I type–and, I tell you, in one of my parallel lives, I’m a lexicographer hard at work in the twenty-first-century version of the Scriptorium–I sent them an e-mail, my own 2005 version of those paper slips Murray solicited, and suggested that “wistlessness” should go into the new edition, with Hardy’s poem as its earliest (and perhaps only) documented instance.

About six months later, I received a reply from an apologetic OED staffer who said that she would be sure the word got full consideration. It’s a good tradition to have stepped into.


Just in case you’re wondering about those three words I dropped into this post: I’d leave them for you to look up on your own, but it’s not fair to assume that everyone has online access to the OED, far less multiple personal copies which obsession and parental care have brought their way, and so here are quickie definitions for you. An amatorculist, from the Latin amatorculus (“pitiful lover”), is a “trifling sweetheart, a general lover” (1731). To be amatorious is less damning: the adjectival form of the Latin amator (“lover”), it means “relating to love, amatory. Also, inclined to love, amorous.” If you feel like dropping the noun version of it on someone, talk about amatoriousness. (Do you see how fun this starts to be?) Finally, zymurgy pertains to one of my other favorite things: coming out of the Greek for “leaven-making,” it means “the practice or art of fermentation, as in wine-making, brewing, distilling, etc.”

Sigh. Sometimes the OED simply ecstasizes me.