#bookaday (5): Doesn’t Belong to Me

A book that doesn’t belong to me?  This one is easy: the full Oxford English Dictionary, in twenty volumes (1989), or in its wonderful electronic form.  My main disappointment in writing this post has been to discover that Anthony Burgess’s hilariously fruity remark about the OED — ‘I have taken this book like a mistress to bed (a weighty one but handleable)’  — referred not to the twenty-volume second edition, but to the fourth and final supplement (1986, covering Se-Z) to the previous edition.  The image of Burgess in bed with twenty volumes is just that little bit better than him paying amorous attention to the language from ‘se’ to ‘zymosan’. In my case, even if I could have afforded to buy all twenty volumes, I’d have had to take them to bed because there’s no space left on the bookshelves.


The Twenty-Volume OED


Anthony Burgess and his progeny

The great thing about the OED is that, in theory at least, it’s descriptive and not prescriptive; it’s merely a systematic account of what’s out there in the written form of the language. All manner of writers jostle side by side, allowed in only because they were the first to use a word in a particular sense, or because they illustrate its continuing use in later centuries.  And anyone can contribute, so long as you provide them with the kind of evidence of written usage that they’re looking for. In that sense, anyone with an interest in the history of the language is a stakeholder, even if they don’t own a copy.


Around 2002, when I was writing my Authors in Context book on Virginia Woolf (2005), identifying new words and pre-dating existing ones became a minor obsession. By then I’d acquired the new Shorter OED (2 vols), which probably encouraged the obsession, and my University had access to the full online OED. The Authors in Context series editor Patricia Ingham had begun as a medieval philologist (she was one of the editors of the Chaucer Glosssary), and had carried a philologist’s precise focus on language and signs through to her work on Victorian fiction. She had been my tutor for Victorian literature in my first term at Oxford, and for the History of the Language paper in my final year, so I knew something of her approach, and I’d seen her plan for her Thomas Hardy (Authors in Context) book before it came out.  Woolf was significantly shy of using modish terms, and, unlike Hardy, not a great delver in dictionaries, but writing the book sensitised me to the problem of how one might tell literary and cultural history through the medium of the semantic change; behind the idea were Raymond Williams (especially Keywords) and Mikhail Bakhtin (for the idea of a contested term).  I’m not sure how much of this got into the book — Woolf wouldn’t let me — but it also sensitised me to everything else I was reading, and every time I found an unfamiliar word in the newspaper, or a word in historical reading that I thought might have been a new coinage, I reached first for the OED online to see what information they had, and then for their submission form.

I gave them ad hoccery (in a variant spelling), I gave them ants-in-pants; I gave them apoco-trancearthouser, and as-she-is-spoke; I gave them ayahuasca and I gave them ayatollah (as a verb). Down at the far end of the alphabet I gave them woodsheddingworkaholic, and yard (in the finance-house sense of ‘a billion’); and I put them onto The Rough Guide to Reggae for youthman.  I thought I’d found earlier dates for nation-state and nervous breakdown.  I thought I’d put them on the trail of psychobilly, and perhaps I did. It’s great to see that many of the words I sent them are now in the online edition, and mildly disappointing to see that in most cases they found earlier examples and didn’t use mine.

What really surprised me recently was to find a quotation from one of my own books:

OED subetheric

There I am, sub-etherised on a table.  Perhaps it was their way of saying thanks; perhaps it was their way of saying shut up.  I don’t own a copy, but it has taken possession of me.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s