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Argh, muggins, and pleasure boat: diarists in the OED

Diaries hold a special place in literature. They can provide a uniquely personal snapshot of the world at a particular time. When I was younger, it seemed like every year brought forth a particular New Year’s resolution – this would be the year I would begin my diary and, more importantly, keep it going. Yet, it never seemed to happen. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I began and, before seven days had passed, the small leather-bound tome was already languishing in the back of a cupboard while I was off doing something more interesting instead.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Thankfully not everyone has had this lackadaisical approach to documenting their life and times. Part of the reason that diaries are particularly good quarry for the Oxford English Dictionary is that they are an invaluable repository of personal and social history – where the personal meets the universal. Where would we be, for example, without the observations of arguably the most famous diarist of all time, Samuel Pepys? He is quoted in the OED, at the time of writing, over 2000 times, putting him at position 192 in the Most Commonly Quoted Sources. Ninety-five of these are currently the first instance of the word in English, although of course as more of the OED is updated, this is liable to change (as is his place at 192). Some of the words for which he is, at present, the first user include mismanagement, multiplication table, neighbourliness, and pleasure boat (where Pepys records, in 1660, “I find the King gone this morning..to see a Duch pleasure-boat” followed by “We went on board the Kings pleasure-boat” the following year).

Hard Times

Pepys’s diary was written during some turbulent times in English history and as well as recording some of the more personal and trivial aspects of his life, it also gives an account of these major events, most notably the Great Fire of London. Unsurprisingly, this can be seen in some of the OED entries. For example, in the entry for buckled, at the sense meaning “wrinkled, crumpled”, Pepys describes some of the effects of the conflagration: “And took up..a piece of glass..melted and buckled..like parchment”.  Or “To see Cloathworkers-hall on fire these three days and nights” in the entry for “clothworker” (a person who manufactures woollen cloth).  He also gives an impression of how inevitable the fire seemed, in the entry for combustible: “Everything, after so long a drougth, proving combustible”. Elsewhere he describes the clean up after some fires had been extinguished: “It was pretty to see how hard the women did work in the cannells sweeping of water”, and gives some pretty damning social commentary in the OED entry for low, meaning “abject, base, mean”: “Much..discourse..of the low spirits of some rich men in the City, in sparing any encouragement to the poor people that wrought for the saving their houses.”

And in other diaries . . .

Of course Pepys is by no means the only diarist quoted in the OED. One of the earliest diaries cited in the OED dates from the mid-16th century is the journal of Henry Machyn, a London clothing merchant. Apparently much of Machyn’s business involved the selling of funeral paraphernalia, and this concern is reflected in many of his OED appearances. He is cited in the entry for majesty, in the sense “a canopy supported on a framework (a hearse) over a bier or coffin in a church”, as well as for numerous other religious words like postil mass, surplice, morrow-mass, and high-altar. Lest we think of him as only ever taking notice of ecclesiastically-related things, he is also cited in the entry for hothouse, in the sense “brothel”.

Politicians or those involved in the machinations of government also prove to be keen diary-keepers. As people in or around law-making, it can be intriguing to see what they choose to write about. Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady to US President Lyndon B Johnson, in the OED entry for a-bristle is quoted from her Christmas Eve diary entry in 1963, writing “The place is..abristle with Secret Service men”. This was barely a month after her husband assumed office. It is particularly interesting to look at the entries for which the first president of the USA, George Washington is cited. Prior to his taking that position, his diary entries highlight his preoccupation with hunting and the great outdoors, with him being cited in various OED entries such as black-eyed pea, coffee-tree, and bobbed, where he writes “Hunting again, and catchd a fox with a bobd Tail and cut Ears”.  There are, however, very few of his diary entries written after taking office that are quoted in the OED, and none give any particular insight into the accompanying trials and tribulations.

Meanwhile back in the fictional world

Of course, not all diaries need to be factual. Fictional journals reflect the world in which they are set in just the same way as their non-fictional counterparts. It could even be argued that it distances the author a little from the subject matter, giving them more scope to represent what they see around them, even if it is not their own direct experience. In the late-19th century, the Grossmith brothers published Diary of a Nobody. This centred on the life of the aspirational Charles Pooter through his diary entries and is something of a study in the life of the lower-middle-class in London at the time. Most notably, the fictitious author has given his name to a person “displaying parochial self-importance, over-fastidiousness, or lack of imagination”. Other entries in the OED which quote from this work include manicuring, muggins, and good (in the sense of a non-humble social station) with the rather revealing extract “Lupin..has taken furnished apartments at Bayswater… Lupin says one never loses by a good address.”

Another bastion of the fictional journalizer is Bridget Jones with her tales of weight battle and man troubles (or should that be weight troubles and man battles?). Quotations from this mid-1990s creation are found in entries for cellulite, underwired, relationship, and lurve. Anyone who has read it will be familiar with the very immediate and humorous style, and this is reflected in it also being cited in the entries for various interjections like pah, argh, and der.

It would be impossible, at least for me, to write about fictional diaries without mentioning Adrian Mole. Many people who grew up in the 1980s will remember devouring these books and I can recall laughing out loud while reading his diary entries with my friends. A glance at the kind of entries in which his Secret Diary is represented in the OED highlights many of the same preoccupations that I had at the time – digital watch, video, roller disco, zit. In  fact, it seems to me that if I had applied myself a bit more and stuck with the diary writing, these words would have more than likely featured in my own journal, albeit an unpublished one.