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More tales from an OED researcher

More notes from the field, courtesy of your New York researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Tell people you work for the OED, and they seem to think that you have some mystical authority over the use (or misuse) of the language. (I especially like the random Twitter questions – adjudicating biographies, passing muster on jokes – suggesting that I’m like the replay official up in the booth.) The most frequent query: “Is that really a word?” Cronut. SharkNado. Twerk. “That’s not a word, you work for the OED, TELL THEM!” My serially agnostic responses inevitably disappoint: Well, if it communicates meaning, it’s a word. And that the OED doesn’t get to give a Laurence-Olivier-in-Spartacus thumbs up or thumbs down on what is or is not part of the language.

Others have much more fanciful notions about just how the sausage gets made. Recently:

“You work for the OED?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What letter?”
“Um, excuse me?”
“What letter?”

My new acquaintance just figured that we each took a letter, and were responsible for every word that began with it. Can you imagine? Ms. S and Mr. T working nights and weekends, Mrs. X and Mr. Q taking long lunches and dashing out of the office early. Maybe a linguistic game of Clue (Madame R, with the adverb, in the seventeenth century), or perhaps the worst, most egghead Quentin Tarantino remake imaginable. (“How come I gotta be Mr. P?”)

Even if prescriptivism is out – talk and write however you like – I will admit that there are certain areas of investigation that make me squirm; most have to do with curse words. Of course they’re in the dictionary, and many of them have fascinating, long and storied histories. (See Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word.) Still, when editorial work took my research deep into the C’s, simply reading some of the evidence made me blush. OED’s illustrative quotations can be drawn from the most diverse or esoteric sources, and in this case some of the possible citations appeared in books with holdings in a very limited number of libraries. That meant I was either making interlibrary loan requests for books I’d be mortified to be seen reading in public, or it entailed sending off e-mails or engaging in live chats with librarians and archivists, people I’ve never met and was contacting blindly, firing off some of the filthiest language ever to dance across my keyboard.

Tales of Tales of the City

The Internet has of course changed the way we do dictionary research, and has brought down some of the barriers to the fount of all of our citations: writers. In trying to verify a series of quotations from Tales of the City, I waded onto an Armistead Maupin message board, and was immediately plunged into the culture of his devoted fans. My goal was to track down the first appearance of some chapters of the book, which was first serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, and so dutifully registered for the message board (username: OEDGuy) and pled my case. Mirabile dictu! Almost immediately, a direct message from Maupin himself, asking me to call – I did, and over the course of an hour or so, was absolutely charmed, and astounded at his recall of particular sentences he had written some 30 years before.

A jug of wine, Fortnightly Telephone Engineer, and thou

There’s also the strange phenomenon that happens with some frequency – for whatever reason, my research queue becomes consistently infatuated with a particular book or publication, and it’s as if all the words in the English language ever first appeared there (for that week, anyway). Past objects of the affections of this kind of serial monogamy have been Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (we have cuddled up frequently together in nooks in the Gimbel Library at the New School) and Life Lines, an anti-Communist newsletter from the late 1960s and early 1970s – reading them, one can practically feel the sapping and impurification of our precious bodily fluids.

These relationships can go on. For a while I was going steady with the full run of each edition of James Dwight Dana’s Systems of Mineralogy at Columbia’s Geology Library; the breakup was painful. (“It’s not you, it’s OED.”) More recently, I have been seeing a truly glorious publication, one that transports us to another time and place: Fortnightly Telephone Engineer. Is there anything it cannot do, I wondered? Your quotations are glorious, your photographs magnificent.

OED dating tips: say it with salmon

Of course I pick up great fun facts along the way (e.g., getting to read about 19th-century piano manufacturers the Tonk brothers – literally, these guys put the Tonk in honkytonk) as well as tips for pleasure reading (I give you Common Insects of Oxen Pond Botanic Park, my gift to you). Also, a Victorian romance novel provides some unconventional courtship tips (“‘I have sent your mother a salmon,’ the judge continued”).

Finally, then – who knows if the OxfordWords blog will provide me with this forum again after this? – a word about my true bête noire, the 1881 Volume II of Rubber Era. The periodical includes precisely what you would suspect (“The Biography of Charles Goodyear, Chapter 36: Receipts and Expenditures”); I speak of it now not for its tales of rubber robber barons in all their baronial glory, but for its gratuitous potshot at my profession. Apropos of nothing, it features an article, A Lexicographer, denouncing dictionaries, and their “weakness, and omissions, and false notions, and unnecessary verbiage.” This is why no one likes you, Rubber Era. I’m going to go see what Fortnightly Telephone Engineer is up to instead.

See you all in the stacks.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.