Posts Tagged ‘oxford university press’

We hear a lot about the death of language. Whether it’s the death of the author, the novel, the letter – every literary item imaginable has, it seems, been eulogised. Michael Quinion’s Gallimaufry is a delightful book that trawls through the obituaries of the many such fallen soldiers: words that have sailed off into the ether.

A word-nut will have lots of fun with this book. Quinion is an engaged guide, and uses a light writing style, which is a blessing when he navigates the linguistic and historical origins of the words he studies. The title word, gallimaufry, which now means a ‘hodgepodge’, comes from old French. It originally meant a stew or sauce, and it’s still used today, though perhaps only in very enlightened (or pretentious) corners of the English-speaking world. Quinion has divided his enquiry into five thematic parts. The first deals with food and drink, and is of course my favourite; the second with health and medicine; the third, entertainment and leisure; the fourth, transport and fashion; and the fifth, names, employment and communications. Those of you with refined palates will relish the knowledge that the word bottarga (or cured fish roe) – as we know it in Australia – came from the Arabic butarkha originally. There are lots of wonderful little slices through history like this that make you feel like you’re lifting up a magic curtain into the past.

Wonderfully, the thematic division of the book allows you to discover English-speaking habits and cultures that are long fallen by the wayside. Quinion fossicks around in the verbal dirt for things I now kind of regret finding out. Harry Potter fans will know that a bezoar is a ‘concretion of hair or vegetable fibre that forms naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals’, used once upon a time as an antidote to poison. Men awaiting the barber’s attention used to enjoy the music of a cittern. Also, find out what Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts were about wearing a wig! However, I just couldn’t be enthralled by discovering that the zingerilla and the bransle were fancy lady-and-gentleman dances. Perhaps my fellow Jane Austen readers would beg to disagree.

Despite the subject matter of Gallimaufry being predominantly old and now obscure words, Quinion is certainly no obscurant. There are lots of treasures to be had here for readers of British historical fiction, and even those who once pondered why the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Dolly Varden’ cake was termed as such. (The Dolly Varden was a rakishly side-slung hat. Though what connection a hat has to a cake with a doll stuck in it, I’ll never have the capacity to fathom.) If you like odd language trivia and showing off your vocabularistic prowess, you will like this book, as it will enable you to say things like: ‘Did you know that “fig” used to mean “banana” in the West Indies at one stage?’ NO, I DIDN’T. And now I do.

NB. I work at Oxford University Press.

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You know, I never read Pippi Longstocking when I was little. I know, right? I went to the City Library to borrow Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (a childhood favourite, but my copy now no longer has a cover, nor a spine), and saw Astrid Lindgren’s classic sitting cheerfully beside. It piqued my interest on another account: Stieg Larsson has said that Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of his wildly popular Millenium Trilogy, was inspired in part by Pippi. I suppose Astrid Lindgren is to Swedish children what Enid Blyton is to British children; or perhaps it’s not as geographically specific as that. But Salander’s such an outsider, so wild, that I wondered what a beloved children’s heroine could have in common with her.

Well: a lot, as it turns out. Like Salander, Pippi is an orphan, almost alone in the world. She has ‘neither mother nor father, which was really rather nice, for in this way there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having most fun, and no one to make her take cod-liver-oil when she felt like eating peppermints.’ She’s also isolated, though happily, and lives in an old cottage in an orchard with no one but a monkey called Mr Nelson for company. Her next-door neighbours, Annika and Tommy, are delighted at Pippi’s particular brand of absurd fun – her unpredictable cooking style is likely to see eggs on the cook as well as the bowl. But she’s not like anyone they’ve ever met before.

Another point of similarity between the two Swedish heroines is their fringe status. Pippi is a bit of a conundrum for the townspeople, who decide that she should be in a children’s home. But Pippi uses her abnormal strength to evade the police when they attempt to take away. And, unlike many other children’s books, it’s not normality, assimilation or integration that wins out. Pippi leaves you at the end of the book exactly as you found her, shouting ‘I’m going to be a pirate when I grow up … Are you?’

A little while back, I had a chat with the lovely Davina Bell – founding editor of harvest magazine, and editor in the children’s/young adult division at Penguin Books – about the books we devoured when we were, well, wee. Some of my favourites were Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, the Silver Brumby books, Roald Dahl’s nutty capers and Enid Blyton’s stories of blancmange and boarding school. And, okay, Sweet Valley High books. But no long stockings until now, which is a real shame. Pippi’s so anarchic and fun. I kind of want her to be my friend now.

What were your favourite childhood reads?

When someone asks you what you are reading, and you so cheerfully tell them it is a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, it is unlikely that their response will be very animated. Unless, of course, it is a person who has already read The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, because such a person will know that it is a seriously good book. Hold your head high against those who would pigeonhole you (‘Nerd. Nerrrrrd. NERD NERD NERD NERD NERD’ etc.) because Winchester is a cheeky writer with a dashing feel for historical narrative; and, in fact, a few of the chaps involved in the compilation of the OED were a bit cheeky too. I was pretty ready to enjoy this book, in any case, as the Shorter OED is my dictionary of choice. Its authority derives from stylish, succinct, impeccably researched, absolute coverage of the English language: essential reference material for any avowed philologist.
I love reading about British men from days of yore. There’s something about them – swanning around in boating caps, tapping their pens on the edges of inkhorns, and positively swimming in money and learning and propriety – that I find hilarious. Don’t pretend that a historical period when the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was alive and kicking wouldn’t have been pretty dandy. If someone were to ask me which historical era I would like to visit, 1800s England would definitely under consideration, because making sure I was using the correct spoon to eat watermelon, tatting lace and learning Latin all sound like my idea of a good time. Wait, now I’m not sure if I’m still being facetious. But take it from me; the cover of this book, featuring an image of a smiling real-life Dumbledore (it’s one-time OED editor Frederick Furnivall – great name, right?) doesn’t promise anything it can’t deliver: books, old white men, snarky letters, filing arrangements, murderers, and people so learned as to make good old Ben Naparstek seem like a bit of an underachiever. Example: It was said that Henry Bradley, senior editor of the OED from 1896, learned Russian in a matter of 14 days, ‘with no help but the alphabet and a knowledge of the principles of Indo-Germanic philology.’
When the OED was but a dream in the learned ether, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was the British gold standard of word-reference books, while in America, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language reigned supreme. (It was actually very popular in Britain, too.) Winchester’s exposition is fantastic: a brief, fascinating history of the English language is followed by a discussion of the philosophical niceties relating to the enterprise of creating a dictionary – should such a book be conservative, forbidding usages other than those fixed therein; or should a dictionary’s steering team acknowledge the unparalleled fluidity of the English language, which grows and feeds greedily upon various sources, unlike the tightly controlled lexical glaciers of Italy and France?
Winchester has an eye for illuminating trivia that make history come alive. He points out that the first English-only dictionary (dictionaries produced before 1604 were predominantly compiled for translation purposes) was collated to feature short meanings of plain words ‘for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons’. Yeah – my unskilfull lady-self feels so benefited that I think I will vomit. Yet he also fleshes out the trials of the OED’s construction, including the exponentially growing resources pumped into it by Oxford University and other benefactors: the original estimate for the dictionary’s completion was 10 years and £9000; but it took 54 years and cost £300,000. Wisely, Winchester leads us through the dictionary’s tale by concentrating on some of the key figures in its production – the first three editors: sickly Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), Furnivall (who had a penchant for very young ladies, and started an all-female sculling team) and stern draper’s son and school-leaver James Murray, who saw the dictionary almost through to completion.

There is nothing dry or boring about The Meaning of Everything. Story-wise, it’s wonderful: the OED was on the brink of being discontinued several times, and though the battles framing its completion were all eventually won, it’s scary for language tragics to contemplate what might not have been. In addition to putting the facts and figures of the OED on record, this history of what is now considered the most comprehensive, definitive record of the English language raises questions about how the language was and is formed, created and democratised. Language, equally integral to daily life as it is to matters of great abstraction and complexity, is often taken for granted, and The Meaning of Everything engagingly tells of the immense effort and foresight poured into what is one of the greatest literary enterprises known to the anglophone world.