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Grinches, green eggs, and drawings of fantastic beasts: the language of Dr Seuss

This week it’s the birthday of Dr Seuss, the pen-name of Theodor Seuss Geisel. An American writer of hugely successful books for children, he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904. And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937) introduced his iconic visual and verbal style, which was further extended in the ‘Beginner Book’ series, of which The Cat in the Hat (1957) was the first book. Legend has it that Dr Seuss wrote the best-selling Green Eggs and Ham (1960) on a bet that he could not write a children’s book using only 50 different words. Perhaps paradoxically, his wild, fluid ‘nonsense’ rhymes and surreal cartoon-drawings are designed to help children learn the discipline of reading.

Dr Seuss gets a few mentions in the Oxford English Dictionary, notably in the etymology for Grinch, meaning ‘a spoilsport or killjoy; (more generally) an ill-tempered, unpleasant person’, from his 1957 book The Grinch that Stole Christmas. He is also mentioned in the entry for nextly (for ‘in the next place’), although the actual citation is from the Washington Post:

1986  ‘Dr Seuss’ You’re only Old Once! in Washington Post 2 Mar. k1
We’ll see Dr Spreckles..And nextly we’ll drop in on young Dr Ginns.

The OED shows that the word nerd is perhaps derived from a fictional animal in Dr Seuss’s story If I ran the Zoo, depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression. However, the origins of the word are uncertain and disputed – there are at least three more theories that you can read about here.

Dr Seuss and Oxford

In 1925, Theodor Geisel received his A.B. from Dartmouth and enrolled in Oxford University’s Lincoln College. Seeking a doctorate in English literature, he soon became bored with “the astonishing irrelevance of graduate work” and punctuated his lecture notebooks with drawings of fantastic beasts. Helen Marion Palmer, a fellow American and Oxonian, saw the doodlings in class and urged Geisel to abandon academia and become an illustrator. He left Oxford after his first year to tour Europe and returned to the United States in 1927 to marry Palmer, who became his unofficial editor and colleague*.

The knowledge that Theodor Geisel was born in 1904, and lived in Oxford (albeit twenty-odd years later) made us wonder how this storyteller and wordsmith experienced Oxford, and what he might have made of Dr James Murray (1837-1915), the first Editor of the OED, if they had ever met. And so, the Seuss-inspired poem below imagines this made-up meeting. It starts with a make-believe journey, and is based on the entirely fictional premise that in 1911, the seven-year-old Ted Geisel visited a very real Oxford with his parents, where he met James Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. . .

An imaginary meeting: Dr Seuss meets Dr Murray

We came from America to England by boat.
The boat was broad and it whipped through the waves.
I staggered and stumbled; Daddy smiled and said:
‘You’ll get your sea-legs soon, young Ted ’.

He was right!
He was right!

I grew two legs that were glittering green,
With ten tapered toes where my own toes had been.
My sea-legs could buckle and bend, my friend,
Every jolt, every jump that the ship could send –
I stayed standing steady, head at the right end.

Then we went to Oxford on a train.
The top of the train was wet with rain.
It was drier to travel by boat than by rail!
Outside the station I saw an Ox on a box,
With emerald eyes and emerald socks,
An emerald body and an emerald tail.
I touched its flank and its tail shrank,
It shuddered and snorted and snarfled and stamped.
Mummy pulled me away and we left him alone
The ox winked an eye and turned back into stone.

A turret!
A tower!

We saw the whole lot; the whole lot we espied.
Daddy said ‘splendid’ and Mommy said ‘charming’.
I picked up a coin with a king on one side,
The king pulled a face
(It was fairly alarming –
But he didn’t have limbs,
So was also disarming.)

On Walton Street, we neared a man with a beard,
Longer than Grandpapa’s
(before his disappeared)
It was grey, grand, and grizzled,
And went down to his knees
Or, if not there, his elbows
Or, if not there, his torso;
Let’s say it went down to his neck – only moreso.

He stopped to talk, I could only gawk, I didn’t know what to say or do,
‘What’s your name, young man?’ asked the gent with a smile.
‘Ted, Sir’, I said, “Who are you? Who are you?”
‘My name is James Murray.’
‘Are you magical, mister? A sorcerer, sir?’
Dad hushed me, and said not to trouble the Doctor.
‘Mr Geisel, don’t worry. I’m not in a hurry.’
He cleared his throat, and he talked for a while.

He explained how he catches all Words in a net.
They’re not easy to catch – they flutter and flap,
Hither and thither and yonder and back.
He studies them closely while they wriggle and writhe,
(For an old bearded man, he’s surprisingly lithe)
And when they have settled, by hook or by crook,
They’re ready to go in his wonderful book,
Where people from everywhere can all have a look –
And then, off they fly, and he waves them goodbye.
He watches them soar in the sea-blue sky.

I liked the old man. I shall never forget,
The stories he told
Of the Words, and his net –
I wish I had seen it catch ‘salamander
And lunge after ‘quintessence
And sneak up on ‘set’,
Writing them up next to ‘marionette’.
Such wonderful Words, that flutter like birds!
Sloping like cats, or amassing in herds.
With such a wise man I could not disagree . . .
But it certainly sounded like magic to me.

Doctor Murray smiled when I finally said
That there must be magic, to get dancing Words read.
He stroked his beard.
He patted my head.

“Dear Ted! Oh, the places you’ll go,” he said.

*Source: American National Biography Online