Feb. 1, 2014
Poem on my 79th Birthday
This morning, in a jelly glass on my table,
a handful of the season's first violets—
a gift from the garden of a dear friend.
Old age, I'm told, has a discernible odor.
Who would have thought mine
would be so delicate,
so piercing sweet.
It's the birthday of humorist S.J. Perelman (books by this author), born Sidney Joseph Perelman in Brooklyn, New York (1904). His father was a Russian immigrant who tried to make a living as a poultry farmer. Perelman said his father believed "that if you had a few acres and a chicken farm there was no limit to your possible wealth. I grew up with and have since retained the keenest hatred of chickens."
He worked as a cartoonist when he was in college, but he switched to writing humorous essays, which he published in The New Yorker. His first collection of essays, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, came out in 1929. Groucho Marx wrote him a letter that said: "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend to read it."
Groucho Marx persuaded Perelman to move to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but he hated Hollywood. So he went back to writing essays for The New Yorker. His many essay collections include The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966).
One of his essays begins: "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."
It was on this day in 1884 that the first part of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was published. In those days, it had a much wordier name: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society. Eventually,the title was simplified to The Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary had been conceived decades earlier by a group of London scholars who belonged to the Philological Society, an organization that studied language. They were disappointed in the quality of available dictionaries. They formed an "Unregistered Words Committee" to find words that were missing from dictionaries, and intended to create a dictionary of those words. As they did their research, they came up with a list of seven major issues they found in existing dictionaries, issues like "history of obsolete senses of words often omitted," "inadequate distinction among synonyms," and "insufficient use of good illustrative quotations" — all areas in which the Oxford English Dictionary would eventually excel.
The London committee found so many missing words that they realized a book of those words would be much longer than the dictionaries that already existed. So they expanded their vision and opted to create a new, definitive dictionary. It would address all seven areas where they found modern dictionaries lacking, and would include a comprehensive list of words from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. In 1858, the Philological Society officially approved the project.
The first editor died of tuberculosis after a year. The next editor became obsessed with finding examples of word usages in literature, and since many old texts were out of print, he started a press just to publish historical texts. He published a lot of books and recruited more than 800 volunteers to read through those books and others for quotations. Unfortunately, this process took 20 years, without any progress made on the dictionary itself. In 1878, the Oxford University Press agreed to take on the project, and it was assigned to yet another editor.
This new editor, James Murray, inherited thousands of slips of paper with quotations on them provided by readers. But he found that under the past editorship, readers tended to focus on obscure words; for example, readers had collected just five examples of the word abuse but more than 50 of the word abusion. Within a few weeks of being hired, Murray wrote and published a document called "An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public," and had 2,000 copies distributed. He asked volunteers to read through whatever books they preferred — possibilities included works of literature, science, philosophy, historical texts, and cookbooks. When they found an interesting word, they should note it down on a 4"x6" index card with an example of the sentence in which it was used. Thousands of volunteer readers had submitted more than a million quotations by the time the first installment of the dictionary was published.
When the Oxford University Press took on the project, they estimated that the dictionary would be four volumes long, 6,400 pages, and take 10 years to complete. Five years after Murray took over as editor, on this day in 1884, the first edition was published — but it only covered from "A" to "Ant." The project timeline was revised. Ultimately, the Oxford English Dictionary was 10 volumes long, 15,490 pages, and took 70 years. It was published in its final form in 1928.
It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). His roommate in college was the poet W.S. Merwin, who once woke him up in the middle of the night and read Yeats to him until dawn. After that night, Kinnell devoted himself to writing poetry in the style of Yeats. He eventually found his own voice as a poet, but he named all of his children after important figures in Yeats's work.
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price (books by this author), born in Macon, North Carolina (1933). He once described his birthplace as "a town of 227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression."
It's the birthday of composer Victor Herbert, born in Dublin, Ireland (1859). He wrote many successful operettas, including Babes in Toyland, (1903), which presented characters from well-known fairy tales and children's stories in elaborately staged scenes. His second most famous operetta was Naughty Marietta (1910), which included the song, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." In 1913, Herbert went to a restaurant, where an orchestra was playing one of his songs. He thought that it was unfair of them to play his music without giving him some compensation. A legal battle ensued all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1917, the court ruled in his favor. Herbert then went on to form an organization to protect musicians' rights, called the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, now commonly known as ASCAP.
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes (books by this author), born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). He went to Columbia University for a year, but then he decided that he wanted to learn from traveling instead of books, so he traveled to West Africa and Europe. He moved back to the United States and got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel, and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).
He became a pivotal figure during the Harlem Renaissance and started to write poetry influenced by the music he heard in jazz and blues clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street ... [songs that] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
Hughes was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), he said, "[I want to write for] the people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round."
In his poem "Laughers," he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, / Rounders, / Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses — / Dream-singers all."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®