I’ve got tredecaplets! Yes, I have 13 new babies. I was so excited to bring them home. Combined, they weigh 86 pounds, measure in at nearly 3 feet long, and contain in the neighborhood of 10,000 pages, and over 400,000 words. No, I didn’t count them all myself.
Yes, I’m the proud new mother of a complete set of the 1933 first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
It took me three trips to get them settled in their new home in my office, where they seem to be quite happy. The one downside is that I coughed for a full 15 minutes as years of dust got unsettled in the move. It didn’t stop me from perusing, however, to see the gems that await me beneath the dust. Here’s a sample:
[Of unknown etymology: it is doubtful whether the vb. or sb. was the earlier; existing evidence is in favour of the vb. The sb. was treated as slang in 1688: Swift, in the Apology to his Tale of a Tub (1710), says that it ‘was first borrowed from the bullies in White Friars, then fell among the footmen, and at last retired to the pedants’; in Tatler No.230, he classes it with bamboozle, country put, and kidney, as a word “invented by some pretty Fellows’ and ‘now struggling for the Vogue.” But the vb. was then nearly 40 years old.]
And that is all before the definition is given. How can you not love it?
It is, after all, a 76-year-old dictionary. What use is it other than giving temporary respiratory distress? It doesn’t have any of the new words coined in the last three-quarters of a century, and there have been a lot of words added to our language in that period of time! So if I can’t look up emoticon, napalm, yuppie, post-traumatic stress syndrome, AIDS, newbie, or gigabyte then what good is the dictionary?
Interestingly enough, I had the thought that half-assed might be in there, given that it supposedly entered the language in 1932, even though it feels much newer than that. And…:
†Half-ass. Obs. [tr. Gr. ήμιονος] A mule. 1587. “A Halfeasse of Persia call come and make vs his thralles.”
Not exactly the way we use the adjective now, but it could shed further light on the explanation of “perhaps a humorous mispronunciation of haphazard,” and for that reason, aside from the sheer geeky deliciousness of it, the OED is invaluable. Every word has a history, just as each of us has a background, a set of memories, a past that led us to our present selves. We have used these words, in some cases for hundreds of years, to express our changing ideas, values, identities, fears and desires. The words we choose reveal something about ourselves, sometimes even unintentionally. Studying the vocabulary of English up until 1933, then, is like undertaking a social and psychological study of the people who spoke those words. And don’t just believe me. I’m not the only one who loves this dictionary.
Of course, the entire OED is now available online, so if I am looking for up-to-date information about our latest version of English – and ourselves – it is easily available. It is certainly important to understand how people are using the language, since this dictates language change whether we like it or not. I may hate texting abbreviations in writing, or certain annoying shortcuts in spoken language (since when do we order an appy before dinner?) and I may cringe every time I hear someone say “irregardless” or “less things,” but there is very little I can do about it on a large scale. There needs to be standards, of course, but the study of language change and evolution is the study of what people actually say and use in their daily lives, not necessarily of what they should be saying.
In fact, the very reason for the OED was to capture the essence of the language, not just its current state at the time, but also in centuries leading up to that point. To quote the Preface of my edition, “[t]he aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time from the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang.”
And according to the shiny new internet version, found here:
“The ambitious goals which the Philological Society set out in 1857 seem modest in comparison with the phenomenal achievement which their initiative set in motion. The Oxford English Dictionary is a living document that has been growing and changing for 140 years. Far more than a convenient place to look up words and their origins, the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society. It is certain to continue in this role as we enter the new century.”
It is an astounding document and I’m still a little stunned at how it so easily landed in my lap. Or more accurately, the trunk of my car. I’m sure I will be referring to it regularly here and to anyone who can put up with me as I wax poetic about the things I learn inside those dusty covers.