The Wind in the Willows in the OED
Kenneth Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, is one of the classics of English children’s literature. It combines an account of the simple pleasures and friendships of a group of animals, Mole, Badger, and Rat, with the daring exploits and adventures of Toad. The novel is also famous for its evocation of the Thames Valley, the location of Grahame’s own childhood, and of life on and around the river.
The river is home to Rat (Ratty to his friends) – who is in fact a Water Vole (from the Norwegian vollmus ‘field mouse’) – and whose first appearance in the story is recorded in the OED entry for water rat: ‘A brown little face, with whiskers… Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat!’. There may be a more direct connection between Ratty and the OED, since it has been proposed that Grahame’s model for this character was Dr Frederick Furnivall, one of the key instigators of the dictionary project in the 1860s, who was himself a keen rower. In 1896, at the age of 71, Furnivall – an advocate of gender equality – founded the Hammersmith Sculling Club for Girls, which survives today as the Furnivall Sculling Club.
Messing about in boats
Given this connection, it seems especially fitting that OED includes several quotations from the novel that describe the river and the joys of boating. Under meander – ‘to follow a circuitous course’ (from the name of the river Maeander in Turkey, which was famous for its winding course) – we find a description of Mole’s first encounter with the river that brings him into contact with his new friends: ‘He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river’. The river reappears under the OED entries for midmost, side, waterside, and paddle.
What is probably the most famous quotation from the book appears under the OED entry for mess around, ‘To pass time in a pleasantly desultory way, with no definite aim or serious intent’: ‘There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’. Ratty’s beloved river is a constant and reliable presence throughout the story – where his fellow creatures are wont to migrate or hibernate, his loyal friend is ever-present, as illustrated in this quotation under the OED entry for faithful: ‘His faithful, steady-going old river, which never packed up, flitted, or went into winter quarters’.
Another of the novel’s key locations is the residence of its picaresque hero, Toad: the eponymous Toad Hall – perhaps modelled on the Oxfordshire manors of Hardwick or Mapledurham. Equipped with all the conveniences of modern life, Toad Hall appears under the OED entry for unique: “‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, ‘is an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence, very unique.'” Contrasted with these idyllic worlds is the Wild Wood, inhabited by malevolent stoats, weasels, ferrets, as well as squirrels and rabbits (described as ‘a mixed lot’) – although, as the tolerant narrator admits, in a quotation that appears in the OED entry for sort: ‘The Wild Wood is pretty well populated…with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent… It takes all sorts to make a world’.
Toad’s misadventures are recorded under several OED entries. The sound of the car horn that first captivates him, luring Toad into various scrapes, appears under the OED entry for Poop-poop: ‘I faithfully promise that the very first motor-car I see, poop-poop! off I go in it!’ Always seeking to spoil Toad’s fun are the mean-spirited officials and policemen that lead to his eventual imprisonment. These figures appear under the OED entries for plain clothes – ‘Policemen in their helmets, waving truncheons; and shabbily dressed men in pot-hats, obvious and unmistakable plain-clothes detectives’, and pettifogging ‘petty, quibbling’ – ‘It was hard…to be baulked by the…pettifogging mistrustfulness of paid officials’. Pettifogger is a term for an inferior legal practitioner who deals with petty (originally French petit) cases. Fogger, used to refer to merchants or lawyers who engage in underhand practices, derives from the name of an unscrupulous mercantile family based in Augsburg in the 16th century.
In which Toad does not learn
The novel ends with the famous scene in which the four friends attack Toad Hall in a bid to oust the stoats, weasels, and ferrets who have laid siege to Toad’s beloved home. In his eagerness to exact revenge on these villains, Toad, swinging his cudgel with enthusiasm, shouts: ‘I’ll learn ’em to steal my house!’. Ratty, perhaps revealing traces of his philological alter ego Frederick Furnivall, takes Toad to task for his sloppy usage: “‘Don’t say “learn ’em”, Toad,’ said the Rat, greatly shocked. ‘It’s not good English’.” But – like so many well-intentioned pedants concerned only with maintaining standards and helping others to speak properly – he finds himself alone in his thankless crusade. Badger responds tartly: ‘What’s the matter with his English? It’s the same what I use myself, and if it’s good enough for me it ought to be good enough for you!’ Rat’s further attempt to explain that it should be “teach ’em” not “learn ’em” falls on deaf ears – “‘We don’t want to teach ’em’, replied the Badger, ‘We want to learn ’em'” – and he is left standing in a corner mumbling to himself ‘Learn ’em, teach ’em, teach ’em, learn ’em’ until Badger finally tells him to shut up.