Feb. 1, 2010


by Hayden Carruth

No elegance is
          ascribed to sweat: dripping from
                    the carpenter's nose

onto the clean ply-
          wood. Yet I recall in my
                    big sheepskin how I

sweated in the snow,
          heaving the axe and peavey,
                    and how sweet it was.

And how jubilee
          cried in jay-song to the gray
                    sky, and the white owl

sailed on extended
          wings unerringly among
                    the snow-clad spruces.

"Elegance" by Hayden Carruth, from Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, (books by this author) born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927).

It is the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, (books by this author) born in Joplin, Missouri (1902).

It was on this day in 1884 that the first part of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It covered from "A" to "Ant."

The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea for a new dictionary almost 30 years earlier, back in 1857, and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were "incomplete and deficient," and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times.

The dictionary, they proposed, would take 10 years to complete, fill four volumes, and amount to 6,400 pages. They were halfway (five years) into the project when they published the first volume on this day in 1884, and they'd only completed from "A" to "Ant." In the end, the dictionary took 70 years (not 10) to complete, and it filled 10 volumes (not four) and it was 15,490 pages, more than twice as long as they'd originally estimated to their publisher. The last volume of the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1928. It defined more than 400,000 word forms, and it used 1,861,200 quotations to help illustrate these definitions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a Supplement to the OED was published in four volumes. And then, in 1989, a big Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It's the one you're most likely to find in a library today. Its 21,730 pages fill up 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. There are more than 615,000 definitions for words in this edition, which also contains 2,436,600 quotations.

The longest entry in the 1989 edition is the word "set" in its verb form: There are more than 430 listed ways the verb "set" is used. The entry for the verb "set" is 60,000 words long, the equivalent of a modestly sized novel. The Bible is quoted more than any other work in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Shakespeare is quoted more than any other single author. Of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet is quoted the most — there about 1,600 quotations from Hamlet alone in the OED.

In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Now the dictionary is online, where it's constantly under revision.

Many of the facts found in this entry about the Oxford English Dictionary — and more information about it -— can be found on the OED's own site:

It's the birthday of a man who loved words and who said he had a "lifetime devotion to puns," humorist S.J. Perelman, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1904), whom The New York Times Magazine once called "the funniest man alive."

He wrote sentences like, "[The waiters'] eyes sparkled and their pencils flew as she proceeded to eviscerate my wallet — pâté, Whitstable oysters, a sole, and a favorite salad of the Nizam of Hyderabad made of shredded five-pound notes."

For decades, Perelman wrote for The New Yorker magazine, mostly short humorous sketches, which he described as "feuilletons." It's a French word that means "leaves of a book." Perelman said that he was preoccupied "with clichés, baroque language, and the elegant variation." He said he was influenced by James Joyce and by another Irish writer, Flann O'Brien, and he was a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse.

Perelman loved to travel, and he circled the globe seven times. He wrote many of his sketches about traveling, and also a couple of books, including Westward Ha! or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés (1947) and Eastward Ha (1977). He also co-wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning movie Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). He once said the "stresses and strains" of travel are "highly productive of the kind of situation I can write about. In other words, misery breeds copy."

He said, "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."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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