Posts Tagged ‘English



The other night, in a fit of ebullient drunkenness I declared the Oxford English Dictionary the single greatest achievement of mankind. For whatever reason, all Anglo guilt aside, English is the language of record. So, to my mind, the most comprehensive and respected volumes that record its meaning and history are a treasure for humanity. “Its more important than buildings, … fire,” I said, “and makeup.”

My friend Joey has become somewhat obsessed with this statement. I’m sure it’s because of my inclusion of makeup. And I’m sure that is the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race. My geek-out moment is apparently one of the gayest things he’s heard in a while. It’s doesn’t rise to the level of Wildean wit, exactly, but it does my ego marvelous good to get such attention.


Kids Are Dumb and Therefore Funny

Babies are dumb. Little kids aren’t much better. And what are adults at the end of the day but tall kids with bumps and more hair. But as we grow and learn and try to make sense of things, we can come up with some bloody funny things.

Intelligent Design, for example.

Or The Bush Doctrine.

I was reminded of this when someone told me a story about his introduction, at the age of about 10 or 11, to a woman named Naomi.

“Hi, I’m Naomi,” she said.

“Naom-you?” he responded. He thought that when she said her name to someone it was Nao-me, and when someone else said her name to her it was Naom-you.

I myself am guilty of such leaps in logic. In kindergarten, I loved to bring in record albums (those were the days) for Show-and-Tell. It made me popular for a day if I chose the right record. There was the Grease soundtrack on one hand, and a reading of “The Three Little Pigs” on the other. Guess which one won me respect and admiration among my peers. Lord knows I can’t remember.

I forget which one it was — probably Grease — but a substitute teacher once forced me to hand over my record. My favorite song at the time was “Greased Lightning,” which contained a sexual reference or two in its lyrics that my young ears were too green to comprehend. I imagine she was trying to save me from myself, or to have a word with my mom or some such thing.

She was on a relatively long assignment, filling in for our regular teacher. Those were the days of Miss Nelson is Missing!. We did not like teachers, but a sub was the Devil incarnate. So naturally, I thought she was using her bully powers of adulthood (Oh, I couldn’t wait to grow up!) to steal it from me forever.

As I recall, I got it back by pouting at the end of class. Whether she had intended to give it back then or not I can’t say. I hated her and feared her. But I had no idea what would soon happen to the poor woman.

One day she wasn’t in class and we had a different sub. I asked what happened to Miss What’s-her-name, and someone (a student? my memory!) told me breezily that she had been fired.

I’d never heard of such a thing, and naturally I was horrified. They burned her to death? Just for taking my Grease album? Word got around, I guess. Maybe she had been mean to other kids at other schools. I felt vaguely responsible. I didn’t hate her that much. But also I felt vindicated, like a reign of terror had ended.


I Want my OED (or “Etymology for Nothing and Web Access for Free”)

Video never did kill the radio star, but there may be a very serious casualty in the smackdown between the World Wide Web and what we old timers call the “durable media.”

Of all the great crushes in my life — Chris in 5th grade, the subject of my first boy-on-boy dream (complete with, no joke, a roaring fireplace); Justin in 7th grade, who I would surreptitiously photograph at Camp Tamarack; Paul in high school, my little brother’s YMCA swimming instructor, who I never missed sight of changing in the locker room — the one that stands out above all others is the one I met in college. An English professor introduced us. I was at once captivated by his plain language and vast knowledge; his masculine, somewhat earthy scent; his perfectly straight spine; his thin, delicate pages; his minuscule, seemingly boundless print.

What hope did I have? How could I possibly resist this true, this pure, this urgent love? I was hopelessly lost from the moment I parted those covers to examine “gun” and “hangnail” and “nickname” and other marvels.

Yet there will come a time when those hardcover multi-volume memories are all I have left. I fear that I will never see the great love of my life — the Oxford English Dictionary — in its third edition in printed form.

Oh, for how long have I dreamed of wrapping myself bodily around its two dozen volumes! Of running my fingers along its stiff, bony edges. Of digging the sharp corners of its perfect, tight binding into my softly pliant flesh! Of inhaling the musky perfumery of inks on thousands upon thousands of translucent leaves!

A recent visit to the OED Web site rudely wrestled me from such dizzying passions. Intending to confirm the third edition’s publishing date, I was shocked instead to learn that plans had changed dramatically since my last visit. The FAQ stated unmistakably that the revisions currently underway for the third edition will not be completed until 2037.

Two thousand.


I will turn 61 years old that year.

The OED contains the history of the meaning of every blessed word in the English language, which includes by default a fair number of words from other languages, traced all the way back to their first recorded usage. It is the bible of my sacred tongue. An essential (and significantly large) part of the history of human thought itself. Few have anticipated the Second Coming with as much fervor as I have waited for this edition.

The second edition contains more than 300,000 words. Apparently more than 4,000 words are added every year. The OED will effectively double in size by the time the third edition is complete. There is no dictionary more well-endowed.

But the second edition is riddled with supplements and additions, a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled volumes.


The complete CD-ROM edition is not available for Macintosh.


And a subscription to the online service, perhaps the most bearable option, is unaffordable. Libraries in the UK and Ireland offer remote access for free, but the New York Public Library does not. (So much for one of the greatest knowledge institutions of the world.)

Rat bastards!

Unthinkably, there may not even be be a printing of the third edition! Can you imagine a 40-volume dictionary? In type too small for my old ass to read? What is the point of literacy? What is the point of living?



The ad says something like “People who need people. People who know people. People who know people who need people.”

Something like that.

It’s a subway poster for the Freelancer’s Union, and before I even comprehend the message, I react mainly to the number of times the word “people” appears. Of course, they want to focus on people: It’s a union. But when it’s repeated, like, 10 times in a single ad, it makes the word look weird.

Look at it:


That “eo” combination is just bizarre. Stare at printed English long enough and the words begin to look as foreign as another language. (Maybe because most of them are.) At the same time, they are totally familiar.

Say it over and over: people, people, people. Pee-pull. It just sounds weird. I’m embarrassed to say it. Do people (ahhh!) really say that word?

I don’t know if the ad makes me think about people, but it sure does make me think about “people.”


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.

the untallied hours