Oxford English Dictionary

I don’t think any part of me is English. I know I’m 50% of Polish extraction. The other half is mainly German, with a smattering of French (the Alsace-Lorraine region, my grandma says), Swiss and Native American. Not nearly enough of the latter to win me a scholarship, of course. And none of this is a source of pride or an attempt at establishing any sort of credibility; it is merely fact.

Nevertheless, my non-Englishness has not prevented me from feeling a kinship with England. It surfaced first most notably when I was a kid with my very strong reaction to Mary Poppins. I cried like a whipped child every time the wind changed and she left the Banks children. (This also led to an unassailable love for Julie Andrews.) When I got older, I bought the series of books by P.L. Travers, which I now, of course, prefer to the movie. (I think the “P.L.” stands for “persnickety lesbian,” which is why we love her.)

Now I collect the hard-cover, cloth-bound, first edition, British-published Bloomsbury editions of the Harry Potter series. The British spellings and slang just seem more true than what we see in the American editions. The British cover illustrations are far superior. Even the Bloomsbury typeface of the text is better.

When I was in London in the summer of 1997 for overseas study, I felt very comfortable. It was all a big romance for me — until I was dressed down by my writing professor once for something I wrote about the charming chimney sweeps dancing with Mary Poppins across the rooftops of London. Chim-chim-cheree and tally-ho!

Those men were overworked slaves of the aristocracy, he said — they often died of various kinds of cancer from the soot they inhaled throughout their lives — any child born to a chimney sweep inherited a short, dismal life of extreme hardship and abject poverty — shame on you, Eric, for romanticizing such a detestible way of life. You are overprivileged. You are petty. You are American.

Touché, Professor Penn.

However, those sweeps sure could dance!

So, I think I’m an Anglophile.

I am aware that this is a completely superficial appreciation for England. It is, after all, filtered through the lens of American history, literature, public television and BBC America. I’m comfortable with that.

But maybe I’m just biased.

Part of that love is manifested in an intense love of the English language — which, it is rumored, some people still speak in the U.K. This love knows no bounds but my general laziness for study. However, I did write a senior project in college on the history of punctuation. And I took graduate-level courses as an undergrad on the history of English. It was taught by an Oxford English Dictionary researcher. (I say this, again, not out of pride, and not to establish myself as any sort of expert — Lord knows, I am not — but just to show my love.)

English is huge. More than 400,000 words, and growing. Highly adaptable. Many of those words are absorbed (I will not say stolen) from other languages. As a result, it is monstrously confusing to second-language learners. (Even I, when typing “monstrously,” had to ask myself: Is there an E?)

I can’t wait until 2010, when the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is scheduled to be released. Far more than a simple, boring compendium of definitions, the OED is a treasure chest of history. Every word is traced back to its earliest appearance, from Old English to modern Standard English.

I love the OED. I covet it. All 20-plus volumes of it. I want to pore over it with a magnifying glass. I want to sleep with each volume in turn, wrapping myself around its sharp, hard-bound edges.

Years ago, I wrote an article for the Hitchhker’s Guide to the Galaxy Web site, about the OED. I was inspired by a book I had just read called The Professor and the Mad Man, by Simon Winchester, about a criminally insane OED researcher and his relationship with the dictionary’s original editor.

I was amazed and gratified when the entry was edited (hence the British spellings) and published.


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