Saturday, May 31, 2008

Electric Company: Silent E

Lexicographical Longing

When I was 19, my father gave me an Oxford English Dictionary, the 1971 compact edition with the 1987 supplement. Citations for every English word since the eighth century were crammed into three bulky volumes of minuscule print. I hallucinated before the speckled onion-skin pages until I discovered that the dictionary came with a magnifying glass.
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That Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, I realize now, represented real magnanimity on the part of Oxford University Press. Until then, the O.E.D. could run to 13 volumes, suitable only for an antiquarian with plentiful shelf space and a feather duster. The compact dictionary, which people like my dad received free from the Book-of-the-Month Club, made showoff etymology accessible, affordable and even stashable for the first time in modest American rec rooms and dens. (“Rec room,” the online O.E.D. tells us, first appeared in 1962, in the Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang.)

Before the cooling in the ’90s of America’s passion for colossal encyclopedia sets (bought from door-to-door salesmen), and well before the advent of massless and, the navy blue compact O.E.D. was part of the standard d├ęcor of a bookish middle-class life. I was overjoyed to have one of my own. Furthermore, my other totemic college books — “Speculum of the Other Woman,” “Reading Black, Reading Feminist” and “Sexuality in the Field of Vision” — could go out of style, maybe; the O.E.D. was forever. Wasn’t it?


The future is here, and the immortal O.E.D., the one that lives in bound pages last published micrographically in 1991, is obsolete — at least according to the folks who publish it. As of now, Oxford University Press has no official plans to publish a new print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let’s go back. As lexicography geeks know well, Oxford’s magnum opus appeared in 10 volumes in 1928, after some 70 years of work by generations of editors and about 2,000 volunteers. (The volunteers displayed much the same gratis fanaticism of today’s Wikipedians.) A supplement with new words appeared in 1933, with additional supplements showing up at regular intervals between 1972 and 1986; in 1989 the whole dictionary was published anew in 20 volumes that collated the ’33 edition and its supplements. Since virtually the day that that last biggie was published, Oxford University Press has been overhauling and revising entries in the dictionary and adding many more. (Oh, “mullet,” “carbo-load,” “six-pack,” “hazmat,” “pole dancing,” “doh!” — what would we do without you?)

But these revisions are now suspended in cyberspace. The lexicographers are uploading their work to the O.E.D. online. Their revisions sit cheek-by-jowl with old entries, some of which haven’t been touched in 150 years. A chicken in the online O.E.D. is therefore “the young of the domestic fowl; its flesh,” which seems poetic and factually not bad but also ambiguous and barely idiomatic in the 21st century. (Whose home, for one, is intended by that “domestic”?)

For some reason, the prospect of a Web-only O.E.D. made me nervous. Talking on the phone with Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, I fished for reassurance. “Um, are you even just going to print out the new dictionary, like on your laser printer or at Kinko’s or something? Just to have a hard copy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure we have printed it out,” he replied coolly. “In any case, we’ve only finished from volume ‘M’ to ‘quit shilling.’ We have about 20 years’ more work to do revising and adding entries. Who knows what will happen with technology in 20 years? We certainly don’t.”

Jeez. I don’t either. I don’t even know what a “quit shilling” is. But while The New York Times and other newspapers have refrained from rash decisions about their print editions, the Oxford English Dictionary — staid, right? — has already shaken off the shackles of print and said cheerio (“a parting exclamation of encouragement”) to books! The stab I felt was sharper than nostalgia. It was fear. I subscribed in a hurry to After all, as book-positive as I pretend to be, I haven’t consulted the 1971 compact or the 1987 supplement in years. When I need a definition, I use the dumb dictionary that came with my Mac operating system. (“Just this once,” I tell myself as I do with guilty Wikipedia look-ups.) When I need a spelling, I’m alerted by spell-check to both the error and the solution. People I know tell me they use online dictionaries chiefly to find synonyms. (Another word for that kind of dictionary might be “thesaurus.”)
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But there’s another virtue to a dictionary, online or otherwise: guidance in the finer points of usage. Subtly alerting readers to which words might suit them, and which they shouldn’t try at home, is not only in the original charter for the O.E.D.; it is also a service with new relevance for people who use e-mail, blogs and message boards. On the Internet, idioms, dialects, jargons and languages from around the world collide. Corresponding with people of varying degrees of literacy in competing dialects of disparate languages means that we must commit most of our linguistic resources to getting up to speed in the rapidly evolving lingua franca. That’s only reasonable; we’re like new immigrants to polyglot neighborhoods. But so much chatting in the Babel-like public sphere means we can let our commitment to maintaining our particular vocabulary go slack.

I learned this the hard way. While blogging about an online video for The Times in November, I wanted to use the expression “rotflmao” — an abbreviation that I thought meant “extremely funny.” To be sure I had the letters right, I consulted the Urban Dictionary, an online wordbook to which users post definitions of slang. There I found this definition for “rotflmao”: “A chat-room abbreviation used mainly by imbeciles, usually in response to something mildly, often very mildly, amusing. People who use this type of shorthand should be avoided like the Spanish flu.”

Aha. Not what I expected, but a good turn anyway: an account of how the word now comes across. A good dictionary must convey something crucial about the words you’re driven to look up: whether, that is, you’ll seem cool or jerky or pretentious or out of step or ignorant or bananas when you take certain locutions into your own hands. In the heavily text-based media that require people constantly to type words to one another, it’s your diction by which you’re judged, rather than your accent, your appearance, your bearing or your handwriting, as in other eras.

I asked Sheidlower if the O.E.D. ever hinted to readers that a word is cool or jerky. “We certainly indicate if a word is ‘racially offensive’ or ‘coarsely vulgar,’ ” he said. Otherwise, the O.E.D. has a whole system for gently protecting users from imbecility. “That’s what the usage quotations are for,” Sheidlower explained. Those quotations, which give examples of how a word has been used over time, are a hallmark of the O.E.D. (the online edition contains nearly three million of them). If the people who have used your chosen word are Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Mobb Deep, you should at least know you’re in their company when you start typing., the popular online dictionary that draws from a range of American dictionaries, offers a much more limited selection of usage quotations. When I looked up “lenity” on, I found four citations with the word. One was from Shakespeare, undated, and the other three appeared between 1998 and 2000. Of those, fully two instances of “lenity” had come from the pen of Richard Posner, the judge and legal theorist. My takeaway? “Lenity,” whatever it means, is, above all, “a word used by Richard Posner at the very end of the 20th century.” If you still feel like using it, by all means, it’s yours.


This Week's Recommendations

MY WORD: For iGoogle — an extrasharp way to curate and arrange your home page — consider taking on the handy widget called Web Definitions. In a flash, it combs through a dizzying range of lexicographical material and returns thorough definitions so efficiently that you’re tempted to try to stump it. Get it through ‘‘add stuff’’ on iGoogle.

DICTIONARY DRAMA: Known best for the rollicking ‘‘Professor and the Madman,’’ the best seller about an odd alliance at the O.E.D., Simon Winchester is our era’s great admirer of the English book to define all English books. In ‘‘The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,’’ Winchester chronicles the whole megalomaniacal effort to contain what he calls ‘‘the English language’s capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.’’

NO MORE LUGGING: Oxford gave us the modern dictionary; now it gives us the modern lexicographical Web site — if a subscriber-only site can still be described as ‘‘modern.’’ Fortunately, there are some free features and options to test it out. If you’re smitten, $300 a year, or $30 a month, will get you unrivaled elegant and stylish entries. Geek out at

Monday, May 26, 2008

English is a crazy language.

English is a crazy language. There's no egg in eggplant, no ham in
hamburger, neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins
weren't invented in England, nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats
are candies while sweetbreads aren't sweet and they sure aren't made
of bread.

Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is
neither from Guinea nor a pig. You can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of
them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn't preachers
praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian

In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Or
ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Park in a driveway, and drive on
a parkway? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim
chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy
are opposites?

How can your house burn up as it burns down, how can you fill in a
form by filling it out, how can an alarm go off by going on?

It drives people crazy trying to learn to speak English. Here are
some reasons why:

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The farm was used to produce produce.

The garbage dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

He could lead if he would get the lead out.

The soldier decided to desert from the army in the desert.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

I did not object to being the object of her affection.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

They were too close to the door to close it.

The buck does funny things when the does are present.

The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

After a number of injections my jaw got number.

Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the
creativity of the human race, which (of course) is not a race at all.
That's why when the stars are out they're visible, but when the lights
are out they're invisible.

P.S. Why doesn't "Buick" rhyme with "quick"?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Food for thought

Q: I’ve been wondering lately about what I call, for lack of a better term, “food words.” Why is someone’s behavior "cheesy?' Or jokes "corny?" Or language "salty"?

A: The adjective "cheesy" has been used in a pejorative way (for something that’s shoddy, tasteless, cheap, and so forth) since the mid-19th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The dictionary's first citation, from 1863, describes a shoddy orchestra "consisting of the fiddle – a very cheezy flageolet, played by a gentleman with one eye – a big drum, and a triangle."

Oddly, the word has been used in the opposite sense as well (though not much lately). The Oxford English Dictionary has an 1858 citation for "cheesy" meaning showy or stylish. This comes from a sense of the noun “cheese” meaning first rate, as in our modern expression “big cheese.”

We have several other “cheese” words, and their meanings are all over the place. For instance, “cheesed" and "cheesed off" have been used as adjectives for angry since the 1940s.

But today "cheesy" is a negative. This is unfair to cheese, if you ask me. It's one of my favorite foods!

On to "salty." Since the 1840s, we've called experienced sailors "salts" or "old salts," according to the OED. This, as you may have guessed, is a probable reference to the salt water of the sea.

Earthy or racy language has been called "salty" since the 1860s. But I haven't been able to find out whether "salty" language was called that simply because it was spicy and tart or because it was like sailor talk. The references I've been able to check don't say.

The adjective "corny" has a shorter history. It's been a term of derision only since the 1930s, when something that was "corny" or "cornfed" or "on the cob" was rustic, countrified, old-fashioned, or behind the times – and hence trite or hackneyed.

It first was used by jazz musicians, who called a style of playing "corny" if it was outmoded or worn out. Here's the OED's first citation, from 1932: "The ‘bounce’ of the brass section ... has degenerated into a definitely ‘corny’ and staccato style of playing." (Imagine a rube fresh from the cornfields trying to make a splash in the big city and you'll get the idea.)

There's a larger question behind all this: Why do we use so many food words metaphorically? Well, why not? After all, we say that a person who's elegant and discerning has "good taste."