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A bookworm is born: discovering the OED

Let me tell you a story about a young girl who loved words and big, thick books and rainy days in which to explore them both …

I grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey. It is still a bucolic little town of some 3,000 people, a small elementary school, a church, a baseball field, but nowhere to immerse oneself while searching for a book to bring home for two weeks—what I’m saying is: no library!

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I went to my first real library at around ten years old and my horror when I couldn’t take anything home with me. As a ten-year-old, it was hard for me to understand that because this fair library wasn’t in our town and therefore we didn’t pay taxes to support it, it wasn’t ‘my’ library and I couldn’t check any books out. You could practically see my little bookworm heart breaking. But it wasn’t the last time I would go to that library and on my next visit I discovered a few things I’d never seen before: microfiche being one, volume after volume of the Oxford English Dictionary being another.

Making the most of what you’ve got

Since I couldn’t check anything out I spent a lot of time looking at the books that you couldn’t take home anyway and the biggest, thickest books—the most chock-full of words—were the volumes of the OED. One afternoon I pulled out volume 1: A to Bazouki and started skipping around. Reading, stopping, searching, thinking. Words I had never heard and many I thought I might never hear spoken aloud: aa, abaxile, agamospecies, babelavant.

Skip ahead nearly ten years to my college senior seminar on The Faerie Queen. Reading Spenser on a schedule, verse after verse, day after day, nearly killed me. There was no time to enjoy, no time to revel in the words, no time to do more than sit and read and read and read. But I would take my copy to the library several times each week and pull out any one volume of the OED at random and look up any word that fit into that volume that day: pourtrahed, puissaunce, spright.

Access all areas

Several years later I found myself gainfully employed at Oxford University Press in New York. It was a dream to work for the company that published my OED, to think back to those days when I couldn’t check a book out of the library and sat exploring the dictionary instead. I had the two volumes of the Shorter OED on my desk right next to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and I was happy. You can only imagine how my heart swelled to bursting the day my boss asked me to help with the 80th anniversary festivities for the OED in 2008. I became the emissary for the US media to Oxford, England and played hostess while we were there for the ultimate OED lover’s guide to Oxford. You know how they now do tours to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings fans? Well this was just that but for dictionary geeks.

The first in a series

When this opportunity to write for the OxfordWords blog presented itself, despite the fact that I am no expert, I jumped at it. Hopeful that I could bring a different perspective with my amateur love of words and the English language, I use this post as a small introduction to say why I’m here and what you might find in my posts: a little pop culture, some science and the environment, US politics and the crazy words it spawns and some words that serendipity might lead me to.

Today I leave you with a word: soothe. A word the OED has always evoked in me each time I open one of its many well-worn, leathern covers or, now, when I log into the website which my local library subscribes to (yes! I have finally achieved library card-carrying status!). As the OED says:


The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.