Tag Archives: words

Chasing The Sun



     In his preface to Volume I of the Oxford English Dictionary, editor Sir James Murray included paragraphs taken from the famed preface of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in which Johnson compared the process of writing a dictionary to “chasing the sun” (95). As it turned out for Murray, undertaking the monumental task of writing the august and definitive reference book, referred to simply as the OED, it was a description as apt practically as it is metaphorically. 

     The Meaning of Everything written by Simon Winchester is something of an expansion on his 1998 book The Professor and the Madmen which examined the unlikely yet invaluable assistance given to Murray by Dr. William Chester Minor, discovered to be an inmate at an English asylum for the criminally insane. Winchester is a prolific nonfiction writer celebrated for his ability to bring life to history through a single event, person or object that may have been previously unrecognized as contributing to a consequential moment in time. 

     In the case of The Meaning of Everything the ubiquity of the dictionary, and its creation, is shown to have as much, if not more, drama, humor, peripeteia, and high stakes as any pursuit humans invest energy into. The contrast between such a seemingly prosaic reference book, and its true properties of thrilling human interest is rich ground for Winchester. His desire to share his own enthusiasm for history is palatable. He brings a subject normally constrained to academics within the average reader’s purview. After all, while one might not regularly think about such an everyday object, what is more basic than a book cataloguing our language? If only it were that simple.

     Winchester opens his book with a brief but sweeping history of the English language in order to frame the scope and uniqueness of the project. Unlike many others, English was never a discrete language. It has always been a conglomeration of different tongues, cultures, and human movement. Simply put, a language does not balloon from 50,000 (6) words during the period of Old English (5th-11th CE) to some 414,825 (1) (as included in the 1928 first edition of the OED) unless it has a remarkable ability to absorb the influx of myriad human influence. This very faculty to expand and fold in new words is not equally shared among world languages. In fact, many willfully resist ‘corrupting’ their official languages. But even if one so desired, and some have, it’s not feasible: English has no pure root, this is what makes it unique and such a rich, ever-burgeoning and wonderful language. It is also what turns the hair of philologists gray. 

     It was the “learned and leisured” (37) men of The Philological Society that undertook the job to comprehensively catalogue the entire English language. With only a few predecessors: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical – although limited to the more obscure words, it was the first ever monolingual dictionary; and the near simultaneous publications of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language – at 70,000 words, twice the size of Johnson’s (35), The Philological Society wished to follow in Dr. Johnson’s vein of simply recording the language as is, rather than as Webster and Cawdrey had attempted: to correct and standardize. That was their humble desire – simply record. Reading The Meaning of Everything, one is left musing that perhaps a dictionary of that scale could only have been attempted on the heels of the hubristic age of the Enlightenment, when men felt they nearly had their arms around total knowledge of the world. As with most great works, the time was suited to the task. 

     Winchester makes it clear that had anyone the slightest notion of what the completion (and I use that word loosely, as indicated above- where the English language is concerned there is no such thing as “complete”) would require, it is not at all clear whether or not the book would have been attempted. What was thought would take ten years took 54, “the number of pages was not 7,000, but 16,000. And the entire cost of the project turned out not to be £9,000, but £300,000” (94). Simply securing a competent editor nearly ended the endeavor. Winchester spends some time recounting the fits and starts in which the typical personnel clashes and drama that academia and institutions seem to manufacture with particular spectacular distinction abounded. Until finally, the publisher- Oxford University (after Cambridge, presumably much to their regret, bowed out) the scene was set: enter Sir James Murray. A veritable Renaissance man: autodidact of epic ability and humble origin. Securing the job of blindly heading up the ridiculously ambitious project would be not only his, but his entire family’s life-long defining undertaking. 

     Begun in 1861 it was not until 1879 (97) when Murray and family were installed in Mill Hill on the outer edge of London, that the work truly got underway. One does not think of a dictionary as a book that is written per se, but the process by which the content is gathered, researched, and defined is fascinating. The Philological Society had long been at work, soliciting learned readers to the task of finding earliest known written usage of each word in the English language. Submitters were asked to fill out a “slip” with the word, source and quotation. By the time Murray came along there were so many of these slips accumulated and haphazardly accounted for that most were scattered in unknown places. It was Murray’s wife who saw an advertisement in a gardening magazine for a corrugated shed, that once installed in their backyard, solved the problem of where to collect all of the slips that had been accumulating in the previous years. Eventually the errant slips were hunted down, some found in the oddest places, and the “Scriptorium” or  “the Scrippy” (105) as Murray dubbed his backyard workhouse, was in efficient working order. Winchester describes the process of working through the alphabet, recounting some of the men and women, from all corners of the world, that voluntarily did the lion’s share of the work. Their contributions and eccentricities are respectfully and ebulliently acknowledged. The difficulties and frustrations of Murray’s “harmless drudgery” (as Samuel Johnson described the painstaking work of the lexicographer) (56), shared by his assistants as well his children (picking up significant pocket change) organizing the dizzying array of words is related by Winchester with clarity, wit and suitable awe.

     Among the interesting aspects of the story that Winchester does not neglect, are, of course, the words themselves. B words, for instance- something of a nightmare for the dictionary makers entailing many unfamiliar and ancient words. While C, although containing the largest quantity of words, were relatively easy to define (174). The process, beyond the myriad slips, with their earliest usage identified, of defining the words to make them practically accessible and understandable is complex. Even the editorial decisions involving pronunciation, variations of words, and the slippery meanings (after all, the raison d’être of a dictionary, if it is going to be more than a mere book of word lists, which it could have been!) is fraught with difficultly. The rule of thumb is to never have a definition use words more complex than the word attempting to be defined – not as easy as it sounds. The rare glimmers of humor and personality that slip into the definitions show at once, by their very rarity, the extreme seriousness with which the job was executed as well as, by their occasional presence, the inevitable outburst of irreverence exposing a humble concession to the impossibility of ever taking anything, much less the wily English language too seriously. The process of the making of these sorts of books is extremely engrossing for anyone with even a passing interest in language, particularly as recorded in the history of books. 

      With a wry retrospective eye Winchester describes the painfully, yet – with hindsight, appropriately slow progress. In a letter to a highly valued contributor who was suddenly struck ill, Murray confessed the Scriptorium’s “everyday wish,” that he had for anyone related to the dictionary’s progress, “May you live to see Zymotic!” (193). 

     The Meaning of Everything is a truly heroic tale of a seriously epic undertaking. The respect with which one will place the humble dictionary after reading Winchester’s account of the saga of the OED is well worth the read. The story of taking the full measure of the building blocks of our communication is as complicated as the result is elegantly simple. Winchester’s account brings to life the dynamism of English with the reverence of the intellect required to define it, as well as the irreverence of a joyous celebration of humankind’s ability to achieve great things. The Meaning of Everything, a title delightfully imbued with multiple interpretations, extols what is most wonderful in humans – our desire to keep chasing the sun.

The Meaning of Everything
By Simon Winchester
Illustrated. 260 pp. New York:
Oxford University Press



Long Haired and Wild: The Story of a Dictionary

“There, inside old books, we also find  “‘beloved and tender and funny and familiar things,'” which  “‘beckon across gulfs of death and change with a magic poignancy, the old things that our dead leaders and fore-fathers loved, viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora.'”*
David Skinner The Story of Ain’t (William Neilson quoting Gilbert Murray 28)


My Inheritance: My father’s spelling disability and his Vest Pocket Webster Dictionary

I attended a fascinating lecture the other night: “The Dictionary as Data: An Alumni Talk with Peter Sokolowski.” The talk was not only impressive, it was also a bit of serendipity for me as I had just finished a wonderful book, The Story of Ain’t written by David Skinner.

“All that a dictionary like Webster’s can do is record usage and when opinion differs show its own preference.” William Allan Neilson quoted in The Story of Ain’t (89)

So said the editor in chief of Webster’s Second Edition. But, as it turns out, dictionaries are also a window into our psyches. Regardless of whether one looks at how dictionaries are used, or how they are made, the window is indisputably wide open.

“It is ironic,” Gove said, “that the very title of the book we are considering contains a series of words which almost defy definition. It starts with the word Webster, about which there seems to be considerable doubt. The exact meaning of the word New is anyone’s guess. The word International has never been clearly defined. We are not even sure of the precise definition of the word dictionary. And the word English is open to considerable discussion. The word language has had a multitude of interpretations, and, finally, it is almost impossible to define precisely the word Unabridged” (171-72).

Let the fun begin! Both  Sokolowski’s lecture and Skinner’s book concern Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The Story of Ain’t  is about the making of Webster’s Third edition in the early 1960’s.  The overblown and manufactured-by-journalistic-laziness controversy over the eponymous word wonderfully describes the cultural history of the era, and with fascinating symmetry, reinforces the crux of the theme of Sokolowski’s lecture: dictionaries chronicle the culture. The words that we define and codify reveal who we are at any given moment. Even the manner in which we go about defining and codifying, as Skinner shows, communicates a zeitgeist.

Webster’s Third […] “is not a dictionary as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster conceived of one; it is a catalog. It is a kind of Kinsey Report in linguistics.”  (Right Reverend Richard S. Emrich quoted 261)

Skinner articulates the dark humor of the hysteria over Webster’s Third wonderfully. There were more than a few moments that I laughed out loud, alarming my son. I had to spend some time reassuring him of my sanity as my giggles over a book about a dictionary tended to cast doubt in his mind. Ah, well he already  sees me as something of lost cause…

“From its tendentious title- the work being neither Webster’s nor international, and only now and then a dictionary- to its silly systems and petty pedantries, the book is a faithful record of our emotional weaknesses and intellectual disarray” (Jacques Barzun quoted 293).

Skinner fully appreciates the high level of sophistication insults and condensations can reach in the ‘educated class’, and entertains the reader with one example after another. The comprehensive manner in which he uses the process and people involved with the making of the Third Edition to illustrate the culture of the time is skillfully executed and makes for a very fun read.

Peter Sokolowski, word maven and editor of Merriam-Webster turned the focus outward in his talk, examining the data that is currently being culled from online users of dictionaries. The trends are stark and fascinating: reflecting enduring conundrums (the etymology of “conundrum” is really fun, by the way) such as “effect” and “affect;” or a sudden interest in an obscure word mentioned by a newscaster or sports reporter. But there are also pairs of words that move up or down the ‘most looked up’ graph in concert with surprising constancy, or categories of words that occur in reliable order after cataclysmic events. The potential to glean sociological information from, of all things, dictionary data bases is astonishing, if slightly dismaying.

The interplay between our spoken language and the words that are then committed to writing is complex, illuminating, and meaningful. Dictionaries are used for all sorts of reasons: informational, instructional, etymological, philosophical (love, Sokolowski told us, for instance, is word that is looked up with curious relentlessness, considering its ubiquity). The potential insight provided by a digital platform’s newfound ability to uncover our relationship to words and what our language usage says about us is exciting, however, I must admit, I am somewhat nonplussed over my own inadvertent exposure.

*title from pg 193: Twaddle knew the letter writer,[…] and confirmed that he was a sane person whose views should be respectively heard. “There is nothing long-haired or wild about [him],” he said.

**Best Latin phrase ever – viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora –  living still and more beautiful because of our desire.

A Separate Word

Hector:  May I make a suggestion? Why can they not all just tell the truth?
Irwin:  It’s worth trying, provided, of course, you can make it seem like you’re telling the truth.
-Alan Bennett, The History Boys (83)

IMG_1272It seems an obvious point to say that plays are meant to be seen, not read, but we don’t always have the luxury. A woman I met recently suggested that I might like the play, (but not the film) The History Boys. It took me most of the first act to get my eyes to work with my brain so that I could put the scene together in my head. I kept forgetting to READ who was speaking.

Timms:  I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector:  But it will Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys (30).

I recently read an excerpt of the book Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger and I believe it relates to my problem:

Research indicates that English-speaking subjects also have discrete systems within the brain for the aural understanding and the silent visual understanding of language (3). 

The Latin word “to read,” I learned at a lecture in the fall, actually has two root meanings: to read, yes, obviously, but also “to choose.” Ancient languages did not separate words, so one had “to choose” one’s words. According to Saenger, it was Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who had shaky comprehension of Latin that began to add spaces. This addition is what gave our brains the ability to read silently: without mouthing or voicing the words. Silent reading makes it possible to read at theretofore unknown speed. A child learning to read, (or me trying to read Italian or French) must mouth or say the words, in fact children’s initial writing usually does not have spaces as that is not how they hear it. But once we make the jump (elegantly moving over the spaces) – the literary world is our oyster. With silent reading, we no longer even read strictly right to left, or all the words contained within a sentence, for that matter.

Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process  of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the Medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance (13).

I’m deeply indebted to the Irish monk’s sub par linguistic skill. That being said, I had to get a little remedial in order to “read” something that should really be seen and heard. I was forced to slow down and hear it.

Dakin:  Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings virtually on a daily basis.
Are we scarred for life, do you think?

Sripps:  We must hope so.
Perhaps it will turn me into Proust (77).

Once my brain cooperated, the life of the play came to be. The stupidity of hypocrisy and academic hollowness, sad fumblings,  defensive cynicism, and disappointed ambitions, live right alongside satisfaction in the small moments of human affection, understanding and connection. The History Boys is poignant, clever, and cautionary.

The words matter. The mental prowess displayed in The History Boys is fun, acerbic, and invigorating, but as Bennett elucidates so smartly, intellect for intellect’s sake is a pyrrhic victory. The war of meaning is won in the spaces and silences.

It ought to renew…the young mind; warm, eager, trusting; instead comes…a kind of coarsening. You start to clown. Plus a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference (95). 

Sound of Longing

DSCI0015the smallest sound,
a mmm of ecstasy
or mourning.
stain left along the round,
an ahhh of pleasure
or despair.
skimming the vowels
u u u.
the finality of
hard consonants fall
prostrate before my tongue.
press my lips
and hope to lie.
the open nerve
wrapped along my alphabet
must straighten up
if I’m to dive
and strive and revive.
u u u.
the smallest sound
a stain along the round
where my words and I, were found.


Two Syllables In Love

Between what I see and what I say,
between what I say and what I keep silent,
between what I keep silent and what I dream,
between what I dream and what I forget:
Octavio Paz from, To Speak: To Act


The Poems of Octavio Paz is a compilation of works by the Mexican poet that lived from 1914 – 1998, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. It is a book, like many,  I mostly read standing in a kitchen while I transformed the random ingredients found in a client’s refrigerator into a beautiful meal. Broccoli con muddica (Sicilian cauliflower pasta with toasted bread crumbs – I love the Sicilian word muddica) and a perfectly pretty pink rhubarb compote slipped in between the verse, my wooden spoon periodically pausing to allow a sigh, letting the words oxygenate  my blood.

Cold rapid hands
draw back one by one
the bandages of dark
I open my eyes
I am living
                at the center
of a wound still fresh

In his poem A Draft of Shadows Paz has a beautiful line: To see the world is to spell it. I am an abysmal speller and this may in fact explain my skewed and incorrect perspective of the world. Now I know. The little dictionary I carry with me has been asked far too much, it simply is not up to the task of correcting all I see. Oh well, at least I can successfully correct for salt.

I love that Paz constantly refers to the mechanics of his art. The punctuation, the spelling and the syllables. He and I are mesmerized by the forms and functions. It’s not just the meaning of the words – it is the ingredients – the words, the commas, the syllables! Sílabas: se enlazan y se desenlazan (Syllables twine and untwine).

I am in a room abandoned by language
You are in another identical room
Or we both are
on a street your glance has depopulated
The world
imperceptibly comes apart
decayed beneath our feet
I am stopped in the middle of this
unwritten line

From Trowbridge Street

His poems are nearly always dedicated to someone, either someone he presumably knew or was inspired by, including the translator of the book which is marvelous to consider. There must be something very different in a collaborative translation, even if the author has no depth of fluency, the auditory and visual aspects can be experienced and molded.

Many of his poems are very long. I’m a little scared of very long poems, but when they capture – it’s awe. Blanco is one such. It is wonderful in many ways, its length is what gives a melody to the usual beat of poetry. By the forth or fifth page reader and writer are harmonizing, and its resonance is deep.

In The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa said (roughly) that poetry expressed everything- in a language that no one speaks. I love that idea: a language no one speaks. We are all bilingual! So what if it is a language of one? Through poetry one can originate a language of their own soul or, as reader, become sole translator to another’s. I’ve always wanted to be a translator. That’s grand.

In between yours and mine, you and me, is an entire lexicon, grammar, and comprehension.  If only someone could speak me. I speak Paz, but of course, it isn’t Paz when I speak it- between us there is yet another.

Words are inexact
and say inexact things.
But saying this or that,
                             they say us.

From Letter of Testimony

* Title comes from the extraordinary poem – Blanco.

for Lasse Söderberg

The world leaps
in front of thought
in front of sound
the world leaps like a horse
in front of the wind
like a sulfur bull
in front of the night
it’s lost in the streets of my skull
the tracks of the beast are everywhere
the scarlet tattoo on the face of the tree
the ice tattoo on the tower’s forehead
the electric tattoo on the sex of the church
its claws in your neck
its paws on your belly
the violet sign
the sunflower that turns towards the target
toward the scream toward the bored
the sunflower that turns like a flayed sigh
the signature of the nameless across your skin
everywhere the blinding scream
the black swell that covers thought
the angry bell that clangs in my head
the bell of blood in my chest
the image that laughs at the top of the tower
the word that explodes words
the image that burns all the bridges
the woman who vanished in the middle of a kiss
the derelict who killed her children
the idiot the liar the incestuous daughter
the persecuted doe
the prophetic beggarwoman
the girl who in the middle of my life
wakes me and says remember

The meaning of lorca


I will give everything away
and weep my passion
like a lost child
in a forgotten tale.
from Minor Song, Lorca


If I were to invent my own language, my word for sad would be lorca. It has a melancholy sound that suits the plaintive tone I would wish the word to embody. In my language, if you say a word, the important thing will be to really feel the word as I intend you to feel and understand it.

Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint

Never let me lose the marvel
of your statue eyes or the accent
that by night the solitary rose of your breath
places on my cheek.

I’m afraid to be on this shore
a trunk without limbs, and what I most regret
is not to have flower, pulp or clay
for the worm of my suffering.

If you are my hidden treasure,
if you are my cross and my wet sorrow,
if I am the dog of your dominion,

do not let me lose what I have won
and adorn the waters of your river
with leaves of my alienated autumn.

– Federico García Lorca

In Collected Poems of Federico García Lorca revised bilingual edition edited by Christopher Maurer there are hundreds of poems by this delicate poet. His use of imagery (bright crowd of the winds…) is breathtaking as in the last stanzas of the poem Weathervane, his lorca, is mine, and he will break my heart one line at a time, but generously restore the spark word by word:

Things that go away never return-
everybody knows that.
And in the bright crowd of the winds
there’s no use complaining!
Am I right, poplar, teacher of the breeze?
There’s no use complaining!

   Without any wind
– Look sharp!-
Turn, heart.
Turn, my heart.

The celebrated Spanish poet’s work has the rare veracity of timelessness. He lived from 1898 to 1936, I actually rechecked the dates on the bio after I read one poem, because there is nothing stuffy or old fashioned in his use of language, or in his exposed vulnerability. There is no indication from his poems that he is separated from us by time or culture. At just under one thousand pages this is quite the tomb to haul around for a breath of words to sooth one’s soul, but it is worth its weight, and then some.

And if we’re tricked by love?
Who will inspire us
if we’re sunk by dusk
in the true knowledge
of Good that might not exist
and Evil that beats close by?

-from Autumn Song

The Plural of Plentitude

I read that: the plural of plentitude, in a Julio Cortázar story. I loved the alliteration and the twisted meaning. There are times when words cannot justify or explain or express…they feel wholly inadequate to the task, or we fall short of the execution. The adjectives, qualifiers, punctuation and other modifiers that we employ to express the nuance- the wondrous, endless nuance of our lives and emotions in words, are endless. Any yet, the power that a simple word can hold is awing. If I tell you I love you, and it’s true- there’s nothing more to say.

That’s what I love the most about words – their stark powerful simplicity and their intense tangled complexity. Like people, no?