Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Ode to the OED

I was just 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, marvelling 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 8 decade long development of the first edition. It was then that 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.

Because 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 is 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 page was 4 regular pages, and had 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. I was only with difficulty 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 pour over the text. A discussion with my significant other lead to looking up the first word, panache (movie reference: "Really, I had to look it up."). Original meaning, not flair or flamboyance, but feathers, then became plumage in military caps. Who knew?

Is it 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.

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