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Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 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.

Virginia Woolf was a prolific writer whose successes include works of fiction, biography, and essay. Her contributions to the English language are certainly not to be overlooked; indeed, she is among the top 1000 most cited sources in the Oxford English Dictionary, and had a predilection for coining terms—mostly phrasal adjectives—herself. Descriptions of “heavy-lidded” eyes, “spider-thin” boats, “supple-faced” men, and “rain-pocked” bones are peppered throughout her works. One of her most celebrated novels, To the Lighthouse, provides quotations for over 50 entries.

I first read To the Lighthouse in my senior year of undergraduate studies. The course was called “American Expatriate Writers,” and while Woolf was neither American nor an expatriate, her novel embodied the cultural and stylistic ideologies of its time, and places her firmly among the canon of great modernists in literary history.

Set in three parts, To the Lighthouse explores the psyches of members of a group gathered at a seaside home on two separate days with ten years between them. Lyrical and experimental, the novel is known for its stream of consciousness style of narration. Plot developments play second fiddle to the internal deliberations of characters as they work out how to relate to the people and world around them. Jack Kerouac, another author famous for this fluid style, once advised in a set of instructions for modern prose writing to “[w]ork from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea.” I cannot think of a more accurate description for the masterful way that language flows throughout To the Lighthouse, poetic and meandering while still maintaining thematic significance:

So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, she thought, upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched out; he seemed to become more and more remote. He and his children seemed to be swallowed up in that blue, that distance; but here on the lawn, close at hand, Mr. Carmichael suddenly grunted. She laughed.

To simply say that I love this book doesn’t do proper justice to the profound impact it has had on both my reading life and everyday life. Without getting too sappy about its hefty themes of individual purpose and meaning, I can say that in times of existential anxiety, when one frets about what kind of legacy (if any!) one might leave in the world, To the Lighthouse is a graceful tome of reassurance.