What's a nuncle, anyway?

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FOR the first five years of marriage, life was a jumble. Baby followed baby; also we collected cats. My uncles turned up often, especially at mealtimes. The spare bedroom was inhabited, seriatim, by female friends enduring personal disarrangements. Kids, cats, uncles, upset lives -- we all seemed to be going, not to Saint Ives, but to the dogs. Reluctant to discuss the present, the future, the children, the animals, the state of the house, the hungry relatives, and the red-eyed women, my husband and I resorted to facts. Where was that delicatessen we had once loved -- on 12th Street or 13th? Who came first: Corbett or John L. Sullivan? Mostly, though, we talked about words. What was the meaning of lambent? Rebar-bative? Eponymous?

Because meals ran into each other, we spent most of our time in the dining room. The dining room became the repository of an assortment of furniture unconnected with eating -- a virginal donated by one friend, a sewing machine abandoned by another. There were several helpless plants. Each morning my husband fled this warehouse to wrest our living from the world, while I stayed home to preside over the disarray. When twilight fell he, and the uncles, and the current houseguest, came home. Surrounded by o ther people and other people's furniture, we continued the morning's discourse. What is a dogsbody? How do you derive rapscallion?

To honor our fifth anniversary we gave ourselves the Oxford English Dictionary (O. E. D. to its intimates). We considered buying the single-volume edition -- an enormous tome that requires a magnifying glass. Instead we bought the whole caboodle, which requires a truck. (The electronic edition will fit inside a shower cap.) The men who delivered the 12 volumes plus supplement and bibliography showed them, and us, a great deal of respect. There was no place to put the books except on the dining room floo r.

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The O. E. D. was 44 years in the making. In its determination to present not only the meanings of words but also their histories, illustrated by quotations, it exhausted five editors, more than 50 subeditors, and hundreds of readers. It is the work mainly of Englishmen, and most of the authors quoted are British. It was produced at Oxford. It is thus redolent of the Bodleian, the Mitre, and the Upper Thames. But it is reminiscent also of the sages and Talmudic inquiry, of scholars willing to spend a lif etime explicating a single passage. The O. E. D. is unrushed. It is not of the moment. Sitting on a low stool, with a huge book open in my lap, I could, however fleetingly, achieve a sense of repose. Never mind the person arguing with her boyfriend over the telephone. Forget the child having a tantrum on the rug. Ignore the uncles and the cats. What's a nuncle, anyway? Who caterwauls, and why?

For a decade the O. E. D. kept us sane. During that decade the children grew older, the uncles dwindled, and the friends resettled their lives. These days, the extras around the table turn out to be pals of the kids. The dining room is still noisy, but it is no longer tumultuous. Calm has descended.

And the O. E. D. has ascended. Recently we inherited from a Brooklyn aunt a piece of furniture whose proper name we have not yet discovered. It is mahogany; it has two shelves and a polished top; it is about as high as the floating rib; and it has grilled doors through which one sees only with difficulty. What is meant to live behind those unreveal-ing doors is anybody's guess -- jars of candied ginger, maybe, or folded tablecloths. What does live behind them is the Dictionary. The volumes fit perfectl y in this Brooklyn piece; and the piece itself fits perfectly in the dining room, right between the virginal and the sewing machine. The top of the Brooklyn piece is a perfect place for whatever volume is being consulted. (The electronic edition will be consulted by a finger on a keyboard, and will be speedy and modern. But where will we rest the heels of our hands?)

A word is alive, says the preface to the O. E. D., only as long as there is a person still living who recalls having heard it used. I like to think of my grandchild's grandchild remembering somebody's remembrance of the old lady who, whatever happened, could always make her way to the Brooklyn piece (it will eventually fetch a fortune at Sotheby's), pull out one of the volumes, and dip into its coruscant treaure.

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