04 July 2011

For the love of words and really big books

The first recorded usage of the word love in the Oxford English Dictionary is, "Posuerunt aduersum me mala pro bonis, et odium pro dilectione mea : settun wið me yfel fore godum & laeððu fore lufan minre." My approximate and probably misguided translation is, "Bear every and all adversity for my sake (the good), make well like a true altruist and all your suffering will become sweet in me, I will make your hatred into wine (delectable) : stay with love and love for the sake of all." The original text appears in The Vespasian Psalter, published in 950. It must have been an interesting book, for this portion is a combination of Latin and proto-German.

Recently, via the blessings and vagaries of the great god shuffle, I heard a selection from the talking book of Boswell's Life of Johnson and I most assuredly assure you gentlemen: Mr Samuel Johnson, author of the two volume Dictionary published in 1755 of 2,300 pages length, was a rambunctious, morose curmudgeon who prattled ceaselessly of his own superiority, quite often in taverns.

As Johnson himself quotes to illustrate the meaning of faculty:

"I'm traduc'd by tongues which neither know
My faculty nor person, yet will be
The chronicles of my doing."

(Shakespeare's Henry VIII)

Dr Johnson was a remarkable collector of illustrative quotations in his dictionary, being the first to employ quotes to demonstrate and paint the meaning of a word. It was a bold attempt to define the world, replete with all the supernalities, vicissitudes and vagaries of existence. He was even attempting to refine the world, for he was a firm beleiver that the apex of a culture is represented in its writings.

Allen Reddick, who has exhaustively studied Johnson's techniques, describes him as employing, "a rag-tag group of pre-dominantly Scottish ne'er-do-wells," to serve as scribes. This situation could be supposed to have engendered the infamously insulting definition of oats: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." The work of the scribes must certainly have become sheer drudgery over the course of eight years, but James Boswell, his most ardent and faithful biographer was Scottish. They even visited Scotland together, so charges of anti-Scottism do not really stick.

While undoubtedly a lexical überwerk, the definitions in the Dictionary still reflect the mores of eighteenth century London. Thus, a vaudevil is, "A song common among the vulgar, and sung about the streets." I have neglected to include the diacritic Johnson employed over the letter a in vaudevil, for it is an acute accent, i.e. the reverse of the mark above the followng à, which is a grave accent. I do not know if Modern French employs acute accents on the letter a. Johnson only tells us that vaudevil comes from the French vaudeville. He is sparse on etymology and the variant spelling of vaudevil does not survive to this day in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

To assist with the definition of world, the following quotes have been selected by Johnson:

5. A secular life.

"Happy is she that from the world retires,
And carries with her what the world admires.
Thrice happy she, whose young thoughts fixt above,
While she is lovely, does to heav'n make love;
I need not urge your promise, ere you find
An entrance here, to leave the world behind?"


9. Mankind; an hyperbolic expression for many.

"This hath bred high terms of separation between such and the rest of the world, whereby the one sort are named the brethren, the godly; the other worldlings, time-servers, pleasers of men more than God."

Hooker (Read about him, a preaching and sermonising sort. OUP is getting into e-publishing: I would be surprised if anyone pays $50 for an electronic version of this? After pondering the concept of monetising my blog, it seems I will adopt the opposite course and anti-monetise.)

I am very comfortable using the OED as a source of quotes, history and information. Other than accessing the online version via the auspice of the ACT Library (awesome), I actually own a copy. Still, promote the state, it is disgraceful that the English Government does not further fund such august academic institutions as Oxford dictionary-makers, until the entire Sceptred Isle is overrun by tweed-wearing-professors, like an episode of The Goodies. With giant pussy-cats, gumboots and Tim's Union Jack underwear.

Searching online for words in the OED is an absolute breeze, recall with ease, that Mr Gavin Douglas, translating the Æneid of Virgil in 1513, first minted the word sceptred. Wrote Gavin, "Thys ancyent kyng dyd set hym dovn amyd The cepturyt men, as first and principall." But using the actual book is an adventure, because it requires a magnifying glass. The use of a magnifying glass is a rule of discovery in this glorious and wondrous scientific age we find ourselves in.

Shakespeare spoke through the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II (first printed in 1597) to say:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Act 2, Scene 1, Line 40

Years ago, I was staggered when my copy of The Compact Oxford English Dictionary arrived in a box, in a sack. Especially so given it weighs over five kilogrammes and contains the entire twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. On 2424 pages. Nine pages of the original to a page through the marvel of photoreduction.

There are many affordable and portable antholgies available which contain selections from Johnson's Dictionary, including one from Penguin Classics, but my favourite is edited by Jack Lynch and is out of print. Not the same Jack Lynch who was Taoiseach of Ireland mind - now there is an interesting word to be sure.

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