warning: total nerdiness ahead.

you would think that several degrees in english lit would have taught me, at the very least, a little something about the oxford english dictionary (other than its status as the preferred dictionary of the english-speaking world). but what several degrees in lit has done for me, really, is give me an excuse to spend my life reading fiction. the last few days, however — what with a bad back and on-again, off-again cramps that i desperately (and falsely) hoped meant imminent labor — have given me an excuse to lounge in bed, where i chose, uncharacteristically, to read some non-fiction.

i blame this on the woman who was our stager when we sold our last house. she made us pack up our books (well, at least 40 boxes worth), and the remainder she reorganized. by color.  initially mac and i were both offended by this — books are lovely in many ways, it’s true, but how the hell were we supposed to find anything  if the books were sat on our shelves, all matchy-matchy?

the end result, however (and of course) was quite lovely. so when we finally brought out 10 boxes or so of books a few weeks ago at our no-longer-so-new-house, i decided to try my hand at this whole aesthetically-focused approach to decorating. it is not easy, i tell you. but it has forced me to reconsider our books, to not take for granted that virginia woolf will sit on the bottom of the shelf, or that the jared diamond and charles darwin books will be in close proximity to each other. in other words, it has forced me to see our books in different relationships to each other, which has somehow allowed my brain to find previously cast-aside books (science? non-fiction? pshaw!) potentially interesting.

and thus it was that i finally read simon winchester’s 1997 book, the professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the oxford english dictionary.  i’ll spare you the plot details, primarily because you should get the pleasure of reading this gorgeous little book for yourself: it is one of the most pleasingly, poetically-written pieces of history i have ever come across. but i also learned a lot about the oed, much of which completely surprised me. it took over seventy years to complete. a whole team of readers — mostly volunteers from both england and america — are responsible for the historical examples that accompany each definition. and the job of these volunteers was to find the earliest example of usage for each word, as well as to log changing or interesting variations of usage over time.

okay, i know this really nerdy, but i think is just so cool: the oed is democratic. it wasn’t meant to capture some static sense of the english language, but rather the language as people used it. i had no idea. and of course it took seventy years and hordes of volunteers, combing through 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century publications, to find usage variations that would demonstrate how a word had come to change over time.  i suppose it is not suprising that such a massive undertaking meant that only in the 1990s were the editors finally preparing a second edition. but wow. the oed is only just now (grandly speaking) in its second edition?

that first edition — or versions of it, as supplements were were called for when lost words (re)appeared — lasted over 100 years. amazing. totally amazing. and just as amazing: the picture of a whole passle of word-lovers toiling away in the tin shed loving called the scriptorium (or “scrippy” for short), sorting the tiny slips of paper sent from around the world, all of which needed to be sorted not only alphabetically but chronologically (and the sub-sorting continued beyond those two fairly easy divisions), and carefully stashed into the endless pigeon holes the scrippy was built specifically to hold.

there are times — in frequent and short-lived as they are — that i wish i was something other than what i am. today i wish i were an historian.

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