A day in the life of an OED researcher
As the New York researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ve been hailed as a hero (hipster poets love me), gotten the rock star reception (by research librarians), and been dismissed with derision, thought possibly to be deranged – this by college classmates at a recent reunion: rock-ribbed Wall Street sorts, who haven’t yet heeded my investment advice that the dictionary sector is ready to explode, yo. It’s an odd and thrilling job, one for which I feel both uniquely well suited and embarrassingly ill-prepared. Some notes, then, from the trenches.
Management is across the Atlantic, and I get my marching orders from the home office once a week – so most of my important lexicographical professional relationships are local, with librarians in and around New York City. They have proven to be delightful and extraordinarily helpful, and I’ve come to know where and whom to turn for what. (The interlibrary loan office at NYU, for instance, works miracles; the staff in microfilm at the New York Public Library have to endure my unsuccessful though persistent strategy of cursing at the microfilm equipment when it malfunctions. Which it does with frequency.) Pretty much all of my communication with the OED staff is online, but I’ve been at this long enough (ten years now) that I recall the days when each week the DHL truck would rumble up with a packet from Oxford, brimming with etymological bonbons, this week’s mysteries to be solved.
I know little about my colleagues in Oxford — I’ve met a handful of them when business has brought them to New York; they are uniformly charming, and my assignments typically reflect their strong working knowledge of things here across the pond; there are, though, exceptions. Not once but twice, I’ve been asked to track down citations in Al Goldstein’s Screw Magazine, and given only the year of publication – one request came with a note, asking if this publication would be considered pornographic. (Yes. Yes it would.) Just my luck: the quotations were in the last issues of their respective years – the OED apparently has a thing for the Screw Christmas spectacular – so someone in Oxford turned me into that filthy man poring over all that ancient pornography.
…to a geek mecca
Research requests have taken me not just to the usual suspects, but around town – perhaps my favorite was a pilgrimage to a geek mecca, the archives at DC Comics, in search of the first use of the word “superwoman.” (Success – May 1943, Action Comics #60. Lois Lane!) Other trips have unexpected poignancy – returning to one lovely, underused library (let us not name it; is not the suffering enough?), signing the guest book, and seeing that the page had not been turned or filled since my previous visit, some six months before. A bibliographical Eleanor Rigby.
O citation, wherefore art thou?
I frequently find myself transported into fantastically arcane little subcultures (the January 1944 issue of Locker Operator, a feature: Care of Tools and Equipment in Locker Plant Slaughtering Rooms, for all the aspiring Jack Torrances out there); enchanted by author inscriptions (“This is the favorite play of my plays” – Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire – mine too); or surprised by a whole novel inadvertently packed into a single sentence (United Church of Canada’s New Outlook, December 1932: “A meeting of ministers at which matters of sex were discussed will abide as one of the hideous memories of a lifetime”). Care to learn about the immortal August 1960 conference of the American Christmas Tree Growers, and its legendary panel on brush and weed eradication? I’m your man. Earlier this summer I was asked to look for a quote in a screenplay by one of my heroes, Preston Sturges, and still can’t quite believe I got paid for the privilege. Christmas in July, indeed.
And there has been the occasional existential crisis. On a search for the first use of the phrase “hair of the dog,” I found myself poring over a decaying nineteenth-century Dutch play that went on for what seemed like thousands of pages – if performed, it must have been unendurable – in search of the single phrase. The ancient pages flaked around and all over me, an etymological snowstorm; my limited knowledge of foreign languages had long been tapped out, and I could only think: it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Perhaps less poignantly, on another occasion I was in a university library, in khakis and a madras oxford, verifying a Jay Z lyric, and thinking: I am so from the streets.
Some of the stuff I get to read is thrilling; some is, well, less so. From Volume 1 of K. R. Sharma’s indispensable Irrigation Engineering: “The ordinary core drill consists of a tool called a ‘crown’ which is a short piece of cast steel tube, into one end of which a number of ‘black diamonds’ are fixed circumferentially.” (If you’re looking for a great beach read, I can hook you up.)
These Are The People In The Neighborhood
I’ve struck up the occasional unlikely friendship – no trip to the main branch of the New York Public is complete without a full exegesis of last night’s Knicks game with the security guard on the third floor – and have stopped looking warily at the patrons I see there day after day after day. I spent years wondering: what could they possibly be doing here? The eventual epiphany: they’re probably asking the same thing about me.
The job can be a bit of a mad lexicographical scavenger hunt – looking for just the right word, in the right context, from the earliest possible source – and on occasion these academic drivebys have caused me to inflict some unintentional intellectual heartbreak. Some research facilities require an appointment, so that the relevant documents may be retrieved from storage – I showed up at one and got a hero’s welcome from an archivist, sure that anyone there to see this particular first edition of an obscure Henry Miller novel must be a long-lost comrade. It wasn’t pleasant to drop the bomb that I was there only to verify the use of a preposition.
Work for the OED, see America from your laptop
From my perch in New York, I’ve also learned where the best collections are all over the country, and for what. Bowling Green State University, for instance, in Ohio, has an unrivaled collection of pop culture material – if it’s the first edition of a dime novel, a journal that didn’t last long but was the first to run a Cornell Woolrich story, or sheet music to a hit tune from Tin Pan Alley, they’re the place to turn. Even more specific – and very useful: Michigan State University has the premier collection of original Star Trek scripts, which, on top of everything else, are a dictionary researcher’s gold mine. Live long and prosper, Sparty.
So now you know, if you see a sorry soul in the corner of the microfilm room, yelling at the equipment and spooling through 80s porn, be kind. Just minutes before he may have been encased in the shards of a nineteenth-century Dutch drama, looking like a sad, breaded filet ready for the deep frier. Or it could just be me.
Follow Jon’s journey in More Tales from an OED Researcher.