Today, I tried to break into the OED. That’s the Oxford English Dictionary, in case you didn’t know.

By breaking in, I’m not trying to steal anything. The opposite, in fact–I’m trying to leave something behind.

I love dictionaries. Not in a nutty way–I don’t collect them or obsess about differences between prescriptive and descriptive lexicography or get into arguments about phonemic vs. non-phonemic pronunciation guides.

A phonetic transcription. Can you pronounce this?
While I find phonemic notation impossible to read, I also don’t care enough about it to find this cartoon very funny.

But I do love me some OED. It’s not the first English-language dictionary, nor is it the biggest dictionary in existence. However, it is one of the coolest. Most dictionaries, including the good ol’ Merriam-Webster, include just words currently in use, the thinking being that a dictionary should tell you what words mean now, how they are spelled and pronounced today, so that people can read and use them accurately and precisely now. Yes, you get an etymology which tells you the origin of the word, but the definition is pretty much restricted to its current meaning(s). The OED, in contrast, includes all of the words that have ever been commonly used in the English language– one reason why it currently contains over 600,000 words– and traces not just the different meanings words have, but how the meanings of words have changed over time. So each entry basically presents a sort of biography of the word, an overview of its entire lifespan. This is what I love about the OED: each definition tells you the word’s life-story.

How does it do this? By presenting examples of how the word has actually been used, quoting from written texts that can be positively dated, often literary ones, which makes reading the entries lots of fun. When the first edition of the OED was compiled–over the course of over forty years, beginning in 1857–the team that assembled the dictionary used millions of little slips of paper to document examples of use, and sorted them according to the different words and nuances of meaning they conveyed.

James Murray and his millions of notes that ended up making up the OED.
James Murray flanked by the millions of notes that ended up making up the OED. Love that velvet scholar’s cap–how Victorian! Maybe medieval, even. The cap I have with my regalia looks just like this one. Coincidence … ???

The compilation of the OED is a story of overweening ambition, dogged determination, lunacy, and romance. In his best-selling book The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story of W. C. Minor, who alone was responsible for tens of thousands of entries. It turns out Minor, unbeknownst to Murray, was an American Civil War veteran who had been committed to an insane asylum, and that he had submitted all those entries from his lonely room over the decades of his confinement.

What can I say? There’s a little bit of W. C. Minor in me, I guess. I’ve been submitting entries for the OED for years now, and have never yet gotten one accepted. It’s much harder to get in now than it was in Minor’s day, of course– you have to submit something that tells users something new, and something important. Something so important that it’s worth expanding the capacious girth of the OED a tiny bit further (Here’s a link to their guidelines, in case you’re interested.) Needless to say, they are very selective these days.

Nevertheless, whenever I think I’ve run across something important, I send it in. Yesterday, while finishing up revisions– finally– for an article I was asked to revise and resubmit for a journal (more on this to come), I ran across a word that did not make sense in context. The word was very small, and my photocopy very bad. I initially thought maybe I was seeing the word incorrectly. It read, “eke.” As in, “to eke out an existence.” But the context was very different. Here’s the passage, from a story written by Bruno Lessing (Rudolph Block) in 1907:

And I can assure you that it was a delight to spend an evening in that crowded café, surrounded by the murmur of foreign voices that suggested picturesqueness of all kinds, listening to the intoxicating strains of wild Romany airs, watching the various types of faces, tasting the queer-looking beverages that you had never heard of before, and, eke, eating a plate of gulyas.

Eh? Eke? this word didn’t make sense. So I looked it up on a verb, “to increase; enlarge; lengthen.” Well, clearly, it’s not being used as a verb here, so that was no help. Then I turned to the old stand-by, the OED, where I found this definition:

eke, adv.: arch. Also, too, moreover; in addition.

Well, that works–no quibbles there. What interested me was the list of quotations– the word’s “biography.” The word originated in Old English; it appears in Beowulf, c. 1000 A.D. (“Dracan ec scufun, wyrm ofer weallclif,” and most of the other instances dated from before 1500. Then there’s one example from 1616, then we jump to 1760 (it appeared in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, “Supposing the wax good, and eke the thimble”). Then the final entry is dated 1856, from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Answered the young men Yes! and Yes! with lips softly breathing answered the maidens eke.”

If that last entry doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, you’re not alone. I find it a rather weak example. Not only is it unclear; it’s also obvious that Longfellow (as he was wont to do) was actually using the word because it was archaic. So it’s not really showing you that it would have meant anything in common parlance in 1856.

My example, however, is clearly intended to be used as daily speech. And it appears in 1907, basically extending the lifespan of the word by over 50 years. If a word were a person, wouldn’t you want to be granted 50 years more life?

So I filled out the online submission form and sent it in. I’m not particularly hopeful, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. You’ll be the first to hear if I get in.

Lucky for me, Matt understands how I feel about dictionaries. One of my most treasured gifts from him came a year or so after we got married, when he surprised me on my birthday with the Compact OED–in a slipcase with the magnifying glass and everything. How romantic!

2-page spread from the OED, containing 18 pages. The pages are about 10 x 14" original size, then shrunk down for the Compact edition so that it can all fit in one 7-10 lb book instead of 20 big volumes. You have to read the thing with a magnifying glass. What fun!
This 2-page spread from the Compact OED contains 18 actual dictionary pages, which means you can fit all 20 big volumes of the full-size edition into 1 really big, 7-10 lb volume. The pages are reduced so much that you have to read the thing with a magnifier. What could be more fun?

Oh, and maybe you were wondering about that other word in the passage from the Bruno Lessing story, gulyas? Well, that one’s easy. It’s an alternative spelling for the Hungarian dish, goulash.


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