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Aldous Huxley and the Oxford English Dictionary

In celebration of Book Lover’s Day, we asked four of our dictionary editors to tell us about their favourite writers. Each of the writers featured is in the top 1000 cited sources in the Oxford English Dictionary. If you subscribe to the OED Online (many UK libraries offer free access if you provide your library card number), it’s well worth spending some time exploring the list.

So far as I know the whole of English fiction has only one character who works for the Oxford English Dictionary. In Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza we see John Beavis at breakfast, with an unappreciated twinkle in his eye, explaining to two little children the etymology of porridge. He’s cited in the OED at the entry for horse feathers:

‘Mr. Beavis chuckled and began to describe his researches into modern American slang..Horse feathers..delicious!’

There are 1490 other quotations from Aldous Huxley in the OED which puts him at 276 in our chart of top-cited sources. Sixty-five of these come from his best known novel, Brave New World: in the far-off future science has produced a stratified society devoted to consumerism and banal sex-fuelled relationships. A ‘savage’, shockingly born from a womb—not from a test-tube—bursts in quoting Shakespeare and trying to love. Although now 80 years old the book still reads as if it comes to us from the future.

248 of Huxley’s OED quotations show, so far as we can currently tell, the first time a word or sense appeared in print. Some of these evoke the high society in which Huxley sometimes moved: Nebuchadnezzar, for a massive bottle of champagne (in a letter from 1913), Campari (from Antic Hay in 1923), and the adjective cigary (from the same novel). Some reflect the science fictiony nature of the clothes in Brave New World: Huxley was the first novelist to clothe his characters in viscose and have them zip up their zip-fastners. Some show the times in which he lived: Hitlerian, mass-producing, and Pax Sovietica.

If you are new to Huxley, once you’ve read all his OED quotations Brave New World is probably the best place to start. If you prefer facts to fiction The Doors of Perception describes Huxley’s experiences with the drug mescaline. But if you want to read more about John Beavis (who is in truth a minor character) Eyeless in Gaza, with its interwoven time sequences, offers one of the most insightful and hopeful novels of the 20th century.

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