Rolling Out New Words, New Worlds

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor. John Agresto is president of the Madison Center in Washington, D.C., and president-elect of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.

BACK in high school, my friend Victor resolved to do two things before he graduated. First, looking upon sleep as the great thief of time, he decided to lessen the hours he would spend snoozing by progressively staying up five minutes later each night. The second thing he did was to decide to use his newly harvested time by learning all the words in the dictionary. This seemingly moderate and sensible remedy for a clear defect of our natures, coupled with a high-class educational endeavor, came crashing to an end when Victor's philistine mother forcibly intervened somewhere around 4 hours and the entry axolotl. The thought of Victor, zombie-like by year's end but casually dropping words like cichoraceous and synclastic, has a certain charm to it. Yet, since what he set out to master was not the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) but a more ordinary dictionary, maybe it was just as well the experiment failed.

We have to begin by discarding the idea that the OED is, like all other dictionaries, mostly good for getting the definition down and getting the spelling right. For those noble but mundane tasks, almost any decent dictionary will suffice. To learn that ``philistine'' means ``a person lacking in or hostile to culture,'' you can consult any dictionary. But to see the word in all its nuanced and historical fullness - to learn that philistine was originally used to describe not the uncultured but the debauched, the drunken, or those generally regarded as the enemy, ``e.g. bailiffs, literary critics, etc.,'' puts Victor's firm but saintly mother in a totally new light.

So, given what we usually think of as a dictionary - the book on the student's desk, the worn text on the secretary's shelf - to call the OED a dictionary is almost a mistake. Not only is it physically different (20 volumes; 21,728 pages; 138 pounds; half a million entries; 2.5 million quotations), but it is qualitatively different as well. Not just a book of words, it comes close to being the collected literary and intellectual history of the whole English-speaking world.

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The scholarship required to produce this prodigy is almost beyond imagining. Started in earnest in 1879, it took five years of research and compilation to reach only the word ``ant.'' By 1928, the first edition (15,448 pages) was complete. Now, over a century after its start, we have a second edition. These 20 volumes take the first edition, add to it the various supplements that have been issued since 1928, and include thousands of new entries as well.

Despite the immensity of its scholarship, it would be wrong to see the OED simply as a tool for professional scholars. True, at $2,500 a set, not every home can buy one. Still, no serious student of the world, from school age to old age, should live too far away from a library that has one. Simply browsing at random through the OED is a feast. But not just a pedant's feast. Through words and quotations it opens up for everybody the whole panorama of this civilization: not just definitions and etymology, but history, literature, science, medicine, philosophy, religion, sociology, politics, culture, and art.

The quotations, all 2 million of them, lie at the heart of the OED. There, if you look up, say, ``democracy,'' you will see the development of the idea in the English-speaking world from one of curiosity to contempt (``an aristocracy of blackguards,'' Byron wrote in his diary) to approbation. In Volume XI, I happened to stumble on the fact that ``peace with honor'' is not a Nixonism of the Vietnam era but words from Shakespeare's tragedy ``Coriolanus.'' And I also came upon the phrase ``peace at any price'' used not to describe the less-than-courageous stance of certain mid-20th-century statesmen, but Matthew Arnold commenting on good old Hannibal. Every opening of these volumes is an occasion to learn not just new words, but new worlds.

Since it is very much a total picture of English culture from the earliest years to the present, it holds nearly everything in its grasp, from the sublime to the silly. Is your interest modern adolescent sociology? You will learn that the great teen-age word ``nerd'' (with its wholly acceptable variant ``nurd,'' and its comparative and superlative forms, ``nerdier'' and ``nerdiest'') may well have come from a Dr. Seuss book in 1950. Its companion ``dork'' (which, parents beware, has other meanings) is a relative newcomer, dating only from 1972. ``Dweeb,'' the baby on the block, is so new it doesn't seem to have made it in as yet. But ``geek'' has an ancient and distinguished lineage, since it goes all the way back to 1916.

Simply put, there is virtually nothing else that even comes close, nothing else in our daily experience has this kind of comprehensiveness, complexity, lucidity, and magnitude. Here is virtually the entire vocabulary of English since AD 1150. In its pages are everyone from Chaucer and Milton to Iris Murdock and Tom Wolfe. Through its pages we can begin to possess not only the language but the full range of achievements this language has made possible.

No, I cannot in good conscience recommend giving up sleep to memorize it. But I can recommend it as a 20-volume treasury that has the capacity to make all waking hours more interesting, more intelligent, and happier.

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