Ex Libris: From the Reference Desk

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary has no rival, and most would say, “Thank goodness for that. Eight volumes of verbal minutia is enough.”

For the average user of the English language—those for whom a dictionary and thesaurus are sources of pedantic, annoying correction only occasionally consulted—the OED could be a nightmare. For the linguaphile it can produce hours of amusement, amazement, insight, and beauty.

A student of Norwegian, Danish, Old Norse, English, German, and French, and also a singer of Latin and Italian, I’m reasonably comfortable navigating through the landscape of Indo-European languages. I can triangulate my way to a rudimentary understanding of Dutch by relying on Norwegian, German, and English. Among the major modern languages of Western Europe, only Spanish and Portuguese remain a mystery to me.

Lacking knowledge of Ancient Greek poses a greater obstacle to historical research. But never mind, the Internet holds an astonishing amount of excellent translations.

For those who are fascinated with etymology and the history of the Indo-European languages, the OED offers an outstanding window on the linguistic evolution, cross-pollination, and borrowings that take place over centuries and across hundreds, even thousands, of miles.

The field of linguistics tells as much about history as does biography, geography, topography, or geology. Ancient languages long in disuse still hold the same kind of clues to life in the past as do fossils or skeletal remains.

Like forensic scientists piecing together a picture of events from evidence left behind, the linguist. or any other type of lover of language, uses words as data to create detailed computer graphics models of any timeframe or cultural entity. Based solely on what is known about the language a people spoke, linguists can resurrect the lifestyle and conditions of our ancestors and give us entrance into their world.

The spelling and pronunciation of a word can be placed on the timeline with the accuracy of carbon dating. Its latitude, environment, and growth rate can be ascertained with the certainty offered by studying tree rings.

Words trace trade routes and migration patterns, conquests, and the spread of religious ideas. They reveal people’s relationship to the divine, their ideals and mores, the structure of their society, and their literature and technology.

In short, language is a key to consciousness, and the OED is a key to language. It is therefore much more than a reference book for spelling and definitions; it is at once a telescope and a microscope that allows us to see distant times and people in great detail. Not many literary works can claim such far-reaching powers.

What Would R.W. Say?

It appears to be Emerson month around here on a consistent basis lately. And why not — Ralph Waldo had something true and helpful to say about just about everything. He was therefore a man for all seasons.

Emerson was perhaps America’s most influential 19th Century writer and philosopher. A quintessential American individualist thinker, his non-conformist and slightly Gnostic religious understanding was typical of his Transcendentalism. He believed that consciousness, not matter, was the fundamental stuff and state of the universe. His division of humans into two groups, the materialists and the idealists, recall the classical difference between Aristotle and Plato — the one looking to the sensory world for answers, the other to the realm of consciousness as the ultimate source of our knowledge of life. It also applies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the separation between the secular socialist (materialist) forces and those who believe in a transcendent reality beyond the realm of matter affecting human lives.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a long discussion with the old man. We should think he’d be pleased to know that his unique take on things is still appreciated more than 130 years (April 27, 2012) after his death. Being quoted would probably annoy him, however. One of the many quotes attributed to Emerson is, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

He had a point. But then he lost it again, right around the time he decided to impress upon that malleable consciousness of ours his own particular brand of perception. Were he to object to being quoted, we might have to resort to using his own words against him: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Take that, buddy. If we’re still crowding onto your front porch, that’s what you get for building a better philosophical body of writing. What’s true for the inventor and merchant bringing new goods to the market also applies to the dealer in ideas. He would surely have acquiesced, at least once we reminded him that, “The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.” Inspire, and you get quoted. Live with it. Or, if you’re long dead, as the great poets tend to be, deal with it anyway. In Emerson’s case, it is the price of genius.

Churchill on Attlee

Clement Attlee was a lawyer, World War I captain, socialist, Labour Party leader, and Deputy Prime Minister from 1942-1945 under Winston Churchill in his war-time coalition government. Attlee was to follow Churchill as PM from 1945 until 1951.

Despite his accomplishments, Attlee had a rather laconic, unimpressive personality more reminiscent of a bureaucrat or manager than a national leader in times of great change. While Churchill was on a bold mission to rescue the free world from the greedy claws of the German iron eagle, Attlee was more interested in civic life in Great Britain. As a member of the Labour Party, Attlee stood for policies that were in opposition to Churchill’s conservative ideals.

To Churchill, it must have appeared a little like the divide between the hunter husband battling off rival tribes and hunting fierce wild boar while his wife tended the hearth and waited for something to cook on the fire. Churchill was certainly well aware that there would be no society for Attlee to attend to, engineer, or micro-manage unless he himself succeeded in his hunt.

Churchill’s prey was of course the dictators of the 1930’s who became the despots on a quest for world domination in the 1940’s. As one of the few with the foresight to see the evil trajectory long before the intelligentsia or masses caught on, he became liberty’s staunchest defender, the lion who would not back down even in the face of a pack of hyenas—his own party members and countrymen, no less. In true Churchillian style he “never, never, never” gave in, and the world was saved an ignoble fate.

Thus, when someone referred to Attlee as modest, we can understand why the courageous and colorful Winston Churchill, with his familiar dry wit and sense of irony, said: “Well, he has much to be modest about.”