Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Ode to the OED

Friend of the Blog (FOB) James Bennett submitted this wonderful essay on the Oxford English Dictionary and I'm happy to share it with readers (especially those with keen eyesight who can still see the microbial words on the OED page).  James is a retired National Guard Chief Warrant Officer, who currently masquerades as a software engineer in Seattle, while indulging in a little reading and writing on the side.  He's the author of two (unpublished) novels: The Team and The Interrogator.  A version of this review originally appeared at The Chief Brief blog.

I was a young undergrad in Russian and East European studies at the University of Washington when I first discovered the Oxford English Dictionary, in the hallowed stacks of the reference section of Suzzallo Library.  Suzzallo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an absolutely massive library even by the standards of major universities.  There are over half a million items in its Russian collection alone.  Although I had no academic use for it, the OED always held some sort of fascination for me.  Whenever I passed by its score of volumes I would always grab one at random, turn to an arbitrary entry, and read through its remarkably detailed and descriptive histories of words, marveling at the ridiculous effort it must have taken to compile it, (its OED OCD, if you may).

Years later my interest only became stronger when I read Simon Winchester's fascinating history of the writing of the OED, The Professor and the Madman, a rather entertaining recitation of the eight-decade development of the first edition.  It was then I truly understood the depths of the obsessive personalities, and the sheer love of language that had gone into creating this remarkable history of the English language.

The OED, for those who have never spent much time reading it, is not a conventional dictionary, with a pronunciation guide, a list of definitions, and an entry for its etymological origins.  It is, rather, a history book of the English language, with citations for words going back a thousand years, covering the development of the word and all its meanings, connotations and subtleties.

So it was with this in mind, that I stumbled upon a 1973 compact edition of the OED in a used bookstore in Seattle the other day.  Naively, I didn't even realize that this existed.  How could you shrink a telephone-booth-sized collection of massive tomes costing as much as a mortgage payment into just two volumes and keep even a fraction of the content?  I pulled it from its cardboard sheath and discovered how: they had shrunk the typeface so that each compact-edition page was four original-OED pages.  They'd even included a cheap plastic magnifying glass, to aid those without superhuman vision.

Years removed from my OED experiences, I didn't purchase it immediately, despite the discount price, but it nagged me for weeks, so the next time I was in the neighborhood, I dropped by the used bookstore, ostensibly to look around, but really with only one target in mind.

I snatched it up and returned home, only to discover the cheap plastic glass, was in fact too cheap and too plastic.  Only with difficulty was I able to make out the text.  A venture the next day to Cost Plus World Market, though, and I was set.  I returned with an old-fashioned-style magnifier.  An item perfect in both presence and practicality.

It was now that I could pore over the text.  A discussion with my significant other led to looking up the first word, panache.  Original meaning: not flair or flamboyance, but feathers, then became plumage in military caps.  Who knew?

Is the OED practical?  Probably not.  I could look up just about anything I wanted on the Internet, and wouldn't have to strain my eyes or my arms, lifting 10-pound volumes and balancing it on the edge of my desk peering through a magnifying glass, but that isn't really the point.  Sometimes you just have to do something for the love of it, and because it represents something that is important to you--in this case, the beautiful history of the English language, as represented in the hallowed tomes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

1 comment:

  1. I so want this. But even if I can't have it, I feel better knowing it exists.