The Oxford English Dictionary and related books

I’m posting the newsletter I got today from Barwon Booksellers in Geelong, not to advertise the shop but because I always thoroughly enjoy what they have to say.  This edition is on the Oxford English Dictionary and books related to the Dictionary, a topic which has cropped up in blogs this year, including The Surgeon of Crowthorne. There’s the information on the Compact Edition and it’s interesting to see all the books listed together.  Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED would be a different kind of read.  And I hadn’t heard of the book by Murray’s granddaughter. I hope you enjoy the Newsletter too.
Digging In The Word-Hoard – The Compact Oxford English Dictionary

Whether your finishing off that eight volume history of the wooden spoon, or your PhD exploring barnacles on the First Fleet, or just trying to clarifya moot point in a family game of dictionary, the last word in  English words is unquestionably theComplete Oxford English Dictionary, otherwise known as the OED. Famous for its native completeness and its practical method of citing the first printed usages of any given word, the OED is to the English language what rock art paintings are to aboriginal Australia.The complete version of the OED runs to some 20 rather hefty volumes but from 1971 there has also existed the Compact Edition, which, by photographically reducing each page to one half of its linear dimensions, means the entire OED is available in a much more portable 2 volume set, complete with a specially designed rectangular magnifying glass for viewing the miniscule text.

From 1991 the Compact Edition format was resized further to fit the lot into a single volume. Each page now went ‘nine-up’, meaning each leaf contained nine of the original Dictionary pages, which of course required even smaller text and thus a veritable glass-brick magnifier to view it with. As a consequence there is a school of thought that the ideal version of the Compact OED is indeed the two volume rather than the one volume version.

In over 20 years we have had the two volume edition at BB on only a couple of occasions, and now we have it again. This is the 1975 ‘four-up’ version, in its box and with the magnifying glass in its nifty little cardboard drawer. The volumes themselves are in great nick although the box is rather worn in patches. Still, the thing is rather marvelous and fetches quite the penny around the traps.

For a week we’d like to offer The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary exclusively to our newsletter subscribers for only $80. First in best dressed.

Befitting such an important work there is an increasing amount of literature surrounding the OED, most famously Simon Winchester’s biographical account of W.C.Minor, the millionaire American Civil War surgeon turned lunatic and murderer who became one of the keenest contributors to the original Dictionary from, bizarrely enough, Broadmoor Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Minor dedicated his entire cell-bound life to the Dictionary and Winchester’s account of his life and his relationship with the Dictionary’s original editor, James Murray, is a remarkable read.

We have The Surgeon Of Crowthorne in stock and also The Professor And The Madman which is Winchester’s text retitled for a U.S. readership presumably slower on the uptake. (It is always quite amusing to see how publishers dumb down book titles for the American market).

Also in stock here at BB is Caught In The Web Of Words, James Murray’s granddaughter K.M.Elisabeth Murray’s biography of the legendary OED editor.  We have a copy of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, in which he expands the story of the making of the Dictionary beyond the efforts of Minor and Murray, and we also have Reading the OED on our shelves, in which obsessed logophile Ammon Shea describes spending one whole year reading the 21,730 pages of the OED from cover to cover. As the flyleaf of Shea’s rather fascinating book says, Reading the OED is a feast for word lovers.

All of the books mentioned above are hardbacks in good condition at $12 each. As a nice addition we also have Oxford’s Modern Australian Usage, Nicholas Hudson’s examination of the editing and publishing issues around the evolution of English in the Australian context. Modern Australian Usage is in hardback at $15.

Lastly, may we express our sadness at the passing of one of our very favourite poets, Seamus Heaney, only a few days ago. As the natural successor of WB Yeats, Heaney himself was one of the greatest diggers amongst the word-hoard, which in itself is much richer for the many arcane gems he revived and reenlivened in the body of his work. Heaney was also of course Professor of Poetry at Oxford for a number of years. Reportedly his last words, texted to his wife Marie, were:  noli timere. Which translates from the Latin as – don’t be afraid.

Dictionaries, and The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

Who would have thought that delving into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary would produce such a riveting tale of murder and madness, brilliant minds and dogged determination.

It was on Eliis Nelson’s blog that I first heard of The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. And what a great read it turned out to be. Over the years there had been other attempts to make collections of words but the Oxford English Dictionary  was the first great attempt to set out the history and meaning of every word in the English language.  Supervised by Dr James Murray, hordes of volunteers collected words.  One contributor showed himself to be highly intelligent and absolutely the right kind of researcher for this task.

That researcher was Dr W.C  Minor.  He had been a surgeon during the American Civil War but signs of mental illness caused him to give up medicine.  While travelling overseas he suffered from delusions and in that state committed murder in London and was placed in Broadmoor  Asylum. The book is largely about his life story and his connection with the O.E.D.

Words are our means of communication.  I can only hope that the words that I have used so far in this post mean exactly the same to you as they did to me when I wrote them.  In my adult life have relied on three books to help me with the meaning of words  – Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Roget’s Thesaurus.  I wonder how many school  leavers will actually add a physical, hold-in-your-hand dictionary as a must-have possession or whether they will just rely on online resources.

The changes that take place in meanings over the years can be a problem.  Some  words have changed so dramatically that I can no longer use them in their earlier meaning.   Recently I was feeling gay, using  it  with its old meaning.  But if I didn’t explain my meaning , you would just take the word gay at its present face value.  I didn’t want to say I was happy – that word to me  is too serene, too calm, very pleased with life.  But gay still means I am pleased with life at the moment but it has a bounciness, I want to give a little skip as I come down the hall, a feeling of sheer delight.   The meaning of happy and gay that you have built up in your mind dictionary might be slightly different to mine but there would be sufficient meaning in common for us to communicate, as long as you are old enough to know the previous meaning of gay.   So…. Yesterday I was happy.  Today I am gay,

Another word which is changing its meaning is marriage.  I’d be quite happy  to see that word honourably retired and have the lexicographers devise a new umbrella word to cover all forms of vowed intimacy, allowing for the fact that some time in the future someone will probably start agitating to include threesomes and foursomes !

These are all thoughts arising from my reading of the book.  But I was saddened by the amount of personal information the author gives us about Dr. Minor’s  illness.  I have done quite a bit of family history research and it’s always exciting when you find a new snippet of information apart from the official births, deaths and marriages – an old photo, a newspaper reference,  an old letter,  So it was enough to know from the newspapers the details of Minor’s conviction. It would have been enough to tell us how he went about contributing to the dictionary.  But Winchester had to  make a juicy story by invading the very privacy of Minor’s mind by using  the Broadmoor records.  Even though Dr Minor is dead I believe he is still entitled to his mind’s privacy.  The privacy of our mind is the only thing we really have.

On a personal note though my great grandfather used to buy the Birmingham paper once a week and reading it lasted him all week.  No doubt he read about the Minor trial in 1872 at the time when his first child, my grandfather was just a few weeks old. And another trivial note to tell you that a little black ant has just wandered across my laptop screen !  Now, where did he come from ?

If you are still with me then thank you for reading.  Isn’t it amazing what one book can bring out in you !

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