The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

OED“Compact” – from the Latin compactus, past participle of compingere meaning to put together closely (com+pangere = to make fast, to fasten.) Used as an adjective = Having the parts so arranged that the whole lies within relatively small compass, without straggling portions or members; nearly and tightly packed or arranged; not sprawling, scattered, or diffuse.

The word was used in 1676 by someone named M. Hale: “The Humane Nature..hath a more fixed, strong, and compact memory of things past than the Brutes have.” Since “the Brutes” can’t talk, I’m not sure how Mr. Hale came to his conclusion. Even so, the idea of “compact memory” intrigues me. I like the way it sounds – almost counter-intuitive. Can memory be compact? Maybe, maybe not. I feel a poem coming on….

OED 2

All this gets jotted down in my notebook because I just inherited from a beloved aunt a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition – definitely NOT the “compact” nor the “concise” versions. It sprawls, in fact, and I’m having fun with it. Never thought I would own the complete set, pricey as it is, though I used to dream about it, especially when I was studying poetry in grad school, exploring language at the level of the word, the syllable, the glorious etymologies. My friends and I sometimes gave each other writing prompts that involved the OED, searching through the surprising etymological roots of a given word, then spinning the root a new direction, gathering fresh images and using phrases in surprising and odd ways (and what does “Say it new” really involve if not oddities and surprises?) The OED is perfect for exploring the “brute” side of language (i.e. its wild-animal, unpredictable nature and its “straggling” and “diffuse” parameters.)

Etymology is not unlike genealogy – both words and people have roots that ground them, histories which make an effort to explain them, and spirits which animate them. Both are subject to interpretation, despite the precision with which editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias (as well as genealogical experts) like to operate.  Here’s a typical OED entry, with guides for how to read it.

oxford-english-dictionary-pageI’m so grateful to have this 20-volume “toy” to play word games with (more ambitious than it sounds) and I hope my aunt comes to me in some form or another (a seal or heron is nice, though my dad actually claimed the latter when he died, and my grandmother the former….) so I can thank her. I like the idea that the people I’ve loved and lost come around in one form or another in an effort to stay in touch with me. They bob up or pass by (“passant = passing, transitory, transient, fugitive”) regularly when I’m at the beach, and I’m grateful. I’m sure my aunt will come to me  though I’m unsure still what form she’ll take. I’ll be on the lookout.

The OED set I now have is practically brand new, and I wish my aunt had been allowed many more years to study it and enjoy it. I found a paper tucked into Volume XVI (“Soot – Styx” – I even love those words on the cover – nicely matched, aren’t they?) which has the word “Spirit” written on it, along with the definition. In my aunt’s handwriting, it says, “Spirit – OED – the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Indeed, the etymology goes back to the root “espirare” – meaning “to breathe.” The word “inspiration” has the same root.

We like to understand and define things. We like to know where the edges are and we usually like things tidy. Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes, it throws the whole 20-volume set at us, and we don’t feel like “the whole lies within relatively small compass.”  As a writer, I work with words, characters, history, roots.  And I work to make sense of things (isn’t that what “story” is – a desire to make sense?) When you lose someone you love, you tell yourself a story that more or less makes sense of it. But in 1898, someone named Illingsworth said, “If matter and spirit are thus only known in combination, it follows that neither can be completely known.”

I can live with that. Some of our stories present the compact edition, “tightly packed or arranged.” Some sprawl. A passing cormorant – a seal, a heron – lingers near us the next time we’re on the beach. We define what we can, and we leave the rest to mystery.

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

7 responses to “The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

  1. I love the OED, even though I don’t have the 20-volume version, but the “compact” 2-volume version (reading it, even with the conveniently provided magnifying glass, is a challenge). Have you read Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages? It’s a fascinating commentary on the amazing words–and unusual examples of their usages–you can find in the OED.

    • I haven’t read that yet, Ellen – oh, my gosh, another book to put into my growing “To Read Soon” stack!!

  2. Interesting, Julie. And a lovely comment on your beloved aunt. I’m sorry for your loss.

  3. Thanks, Bonny.

  4. laurakvasnosky

    Julie — I am so sorry that your dear aunt died. But how wonderful that you have her in the 20 volume OED — and how amazing that “spirit” in her own hand fell out of it. Love to you and your family.

    • Laura, the definition for the word “grace” was sticking out of one volume, too. Amazing combination, spirit and grace.

  5. Really beautiful, Julie. And inspiring!

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