Sunday, August 24, 2008

The OED, Q.E.D.

One of my lifetime goals is to own an unabridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary. This is something I have wanted since some time around late high school, and the desire has only intensified since then, given that my interest in writing (and corresponding capitalization on my natural abilty) has only intensified in my post-secondary life. As most know, I adore the English language, and as I hope all know, the OED is the most remarkable documentation of, monument to, and celebration of the most pervasive language in the world.

The OED's dominance in the world of lexicography has long since been taken as fact, and said fact is known not only by academics but by the general public. That being said, I don't think it's all that common for people to have referred to it and thus to have seen the actual definitions that make the OED so exceptional and authoritative. The OED includes a staggeringly complete analysis of each word, including pronunciation, etymology, quotations (on average, 6), and a sort of carbon dating showing when the word first appeared in language.

In one or the other of Bill Bryson's excellent books on language that I have read (he has written others...I am behind on my Bryson), The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way or Made In America, he talks about one of the more startling stories that came from the creation of the Dictionary. This story is about the remarkable W.C. Minor, an inmate at Broadmoor Asylum who contributed a staggering number of entries to the OED. My grandmother and mother recommended an excellent book to me about this man and the rest of the cast and crew involved in the OED's creation, called The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. It is a fantastic book, and everyone should run over to Amazon right now and buy a copy.

Obviously, Minor is a fascinating character, a man whose brilliant mind was nearly demolished by the American Civil War and ill-served by the fledgling mental health professions of the age, but equally spectacular is the Professor of the title, Prof. James Murray. I sometimes feel like the people of past eras simply operated on a higher intellectual level, and it is because of people like Prof. Murray that I come to this (perhaps inaccurate) idea. His intellect was so...unique, and so utterly staggering, that it is almost impossible to imagine how such a vast breadth of knowledge could possibly be contained in one body. In Professor, Winchester exerpts a letter from Murray's application to a job at the British Museum, and describes it as "offer[ing] some of the flavor of his barely believable range of knowledge," and the selection is so effective at demonstrating what I could not possibly explain that I hope Winchester and Murray would not mind my quoting it here. (For added fun, imagine a game show style "bing!" or do a shot every time he mentions a language.)
"I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes - not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguses, Vaudois, Provencal and various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician to the point where it was left by Genesius."

Suddenly, having won the French One Award in high school seems significantly less impressive.

I have wanted to be a lot of things in my life...architect, doctor, Manon Rheaume, astronaut, writer, President, Congresswoman, Senator, Governor...but even when I didn't have a specific career in my sights, above all, I wanted to be really fucking smart. That might sound weird, but that's been a constant throughout my entire concious life. The thing is, I often wonder if I can be as frighteningly, startlingly smart as people like Prof. James Murray and still like LOLcats and hockey and making jokes about how I'm going to drop Rich like an Olympic tae kwon do judge. So many of these historic intellectuals seem to have absorbed themselves so completely in the collection of knowledge that there was room for nothing else. Is that what it takes to reach those astronomical heights of intellectual achievement?

Luckily, I've met people, particularly recently, who are just astoundingly brilliant and yet also like sports where people regularly lose teeth, so maybe there's hope.

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