Dictionary book

The Oxford English Dictionary: “my favorite book of all time”

By Michael P. Adams

As the year draws to a close, we’ve reflected on all the wonderful books we read in 2011, and in doing so, we’ve also realized that some classics are worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly through the New Year, bringing books new and old to our attention. Here, Michael P. Adams, author of From Elvish to Klingonwrote about the 1961 print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I had never owned the thirteen-volume first edition (i.e. the original 12 volumes, plus the 1933 Supplement) of the Oxford English Dictionary until December 20 of this year when my wife gave it to me on my fiftieth birthday, whether to celebrate the birthday as some kind of accomplishment or to console me is still unclear . The set represents the 1961 printing of the WD – that is, it was printed in my year of birth. It looks new – even the dust covers are intact – but smells a bit musty, as it should, because everything (or anyone) from 1961 is smell-bound. How the WD not be my favorite book of the year? Probably, this is my favorite book.

The first thing to do with a book you receive as a gift is to open it and start reading. There is plenty of time to consider the weight of a volume or the specifics of its design later. First I unboxed Volume XI: TU, and we took a look at its glories: Tenant at will This is where our interest first stopped, but we were soon off to tenaculum and Tenaillonthen go back on the double page until the sub-entry Tenant-right. We wanted to read the definitions, of course, but even more so, we wanted the citations. tenaculum, for a type of forceps, is first recorded in English in 1693, although it never actually entered it, as there are “tramlines” along the entrance (║), indicating that the editors considered the term “foreign or not yet naturalized”. The 1693 quote is from a medical dictionary. In fact, the four quotes up to 1899 are from medical dictionaries, so that’s not a word I’m likely to use I guess, but I’m still glad to know.

Time flies by reading WD, as it passed while we were reading it a few days ago. This is the danger that accompanies all the other incursions I have made there since. These days, most people who need WD professionally or if you want to solve a specific lexical problem, turn to the online version. I’m no different, and the line Dictionary obviously has features that no printed version can match. But the electronics WD cannot completely replace the printed version, which serves the purposes for which it is particularly suitable.

One of these goals is reading. When the New English dictionary – the original Oxford English Dictionary — began to appear in part in January, 1884, with the part for A-ANT, it arrived in the mail like any other periodical, and the addressee sat down somewhere, hopefully in good light, and just read it, read it without a cursor or a mouse. Some, I’m sure, less devoted to alphabetical searching, jumped from one entry to another at their whim; others, I’m just as sure, read the booklet cover to cover. James AH Murray, then editor of the Dictionary, referred to what it reads about tenaculum Where Tenaillon as an “item”. If one is lucky enough to own the fascicles or the printed edition as originally established (I am), then one can read the articles at leisure. I prefer to read for long stretches, but an on-the-fly entry, if it’s the right entry, can be refreshing. The bound volumes are heavy to hold, but I doubt a set of fascicles will arrive at my door anytime soon, so I’ll manage.

When we were talking Tenant at will, Jenny and I, our son, Oliver, were looking over my shoulder. He had turned two a few days earlier; the Dictionary didn’t hold his attention for long, but he was curious. I count my set of WD as the best OUP book I read in 2011 because I started reading it that year. Of course, I will continue to read it for a long time, and it occurs to me that I might not be the only reader. In thought, celebration and consolation are very much the same thing.

Michael P. Adams is Associate Professor of English and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature at Indiana University. He currently edits the quarterly journal American speech and is president-elect of the Dictionary Society of North America. His published works include Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003) and Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009). His most recent book, From Elvish to Klingon, published in November 2011.

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