It was originally titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society when work first began on it in the late 1850s. Small volumes began to be published in the mid-1880s, beginning with the letters A & B, with a new volume released every few years. It was between volumes C and D & E that it began to be unofficially referred to as the Oxford English Dictionary, continuing until it was released in 1928 in a collected 10-volume format for the first time. But it wasn’t until 1933 that the name was changed officially on the 13-volume collection, and was printed on all of the supplements that were released over the subsequent years until the second, 20-volume edition was published in 1989. This is all according to Wikipedia because, growing up in my house, we simply referred to it as “The OED.”
In the mid-1980s, my mother went back to school part-time to get her college degree, eventually graduating with double bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish Literature in 1990. As a gift, my father gave her what is known as the Compact Edition of the OED, which was originally published in 1971 and updated several times as new supplements were released. It achieved its 2-volume status by shrinking down the type so that four of the original pages can fit on a single, wafer-thin page; accordingly, you need a magnifying glass in order to read it. The navy blue volumes are embossed with gold print, encased in a surrounding set box, also in navy, that features a drawer on top. Within the drawer is a tiny white box in which the magnifying glass is stored, adding another layer to the formality and importance of the volumes.
Up until The OED appeared in our lives, I didn’t consider words to be particularly special. I was — and still am — a voracious reader, and built my vocabulary by looking up new words in an old Webster’s dictionary we had up until then. But when The OED arrived, everything changed. You see, not only did I learn the definition of a word, I learned its entire etymology, its linguistic history, its origin; I learned how complicated and somewhat heretical the English language is, how its complexities are what give it such richness, but also how it flows and moves and changes in relationship with those that use it. It wasn’t a static, finite thing; it was evolving, growing, and capable of great influence. It inspired me to become more creative with how I paired words together, to experiment with imagery and ideas, to conjure brand new words to fill in the gaps of my experience.
My younger brother, Mr. Tale, and I would pore over The OED with a hungry passion. The OED’s residency in our home began smack dab in the middle of what we now quite fondly refer to as The Years of Us: 1988 – 1994, when he and I were basically alone by ourselves in a great big house in the middle of the woods. Our older brothers were in their teens, had jobs and cars and girlfriends, and our parents were gone in Seattle from early in the morning until late at night, at school or work or both. Consequently, Mr. Tale and I spent hours upon hours by ourselves, playing games, torturing each other psychologically (as siblings do), watching reruns of old television on one of the few channels we got on the reservation, and — most importantly — reading. We come by our love of reading honestly as our mother is a prodigious reader: Her bookshelves ranged from Bradbury to Morrison to Cervantes to Shakespeare to Christie, and back again. When we tired of watching old episodes of M*A*S*H, it was to one of the ten bookcases around our house that we retreated, picking up a new book and diving in — armed, eventually, with The OED. It was our guidebook and roadmap, the magnifying glass giving it an air of secrecy, as if it contained a treasure map — and I suppose, ultimately, that it did.
After my parents divorced in the late 1990s, my mother moved the majority of her book collection into a storage unit, which she has had to maintain ever since as she has yet to again live in a house big enough to support all of her tomes. She had kept a small selection of her books with her over the years as she moved from apartment to apartment, but after leaving her second husband and moving into a room in someone else’s house, she had to pare down even more.
One afternoon, she showed up at my small townhouse with several potted plants, a container filled with rocks she had collected during her travels over the years, and The OED.
“Here, you should keep this for awhile, I don’t have room for it.” She was harried and seemed overwhelmed as she pointed to The OED in the trunk of her 1997 white Honda Civic. I knew that she was emotionally dried up, the collapse of her second marriage taking a particularly costly toll on her.
“Are you sure?” I didn’t want to give away my enthusiasm and excitement as I knew that, in giving it to me, she was parting with something that was quite meaningful to her.
“Yeah, yeah, I mean, do you want it?” Her voice was a bit weak and it almost seemed like she wanted me to say no, I didn’t want it, that she could keep it.
“Of course! But, I mean, I’ll just be storing it for you until you have room for it again.”
Ten years passed. When packing up my things to move from Seattle to Detroit two years ago, my now-husband griped, “What the hell is this thing?” as he picked up the massive, heavyweight set.
“Oh that? That’s just the entire English language. You know, no big deal,” I laughed, a bit snarkily.
“Ah, yeah, they didn’t teach us that where I come from,” he smiled.
We drove it across eight states and deposited it into a storage unit outside of Detroit because there wasn’t room for it in our small apartment. It stayed cooped up in there for nearly a year, coming out again when we moved into our house last summer. Given its tall size and weight, it lies on its back on the bottom shelf of one of my four bookcases, and I occasionally bring it out to show a word to my own children. When my mother visited for the first time after we’d moved, she noticed it there and proclaimed with glee, “The OED! You still have it!”
“Of course, mom! You know, I’m just storing it for you.”
“Well, I hope you’re using it, too. Books like that need to be used.”
After decades of poking out at the bottom of bookcases, The OED is now well-worn and shows the effects of also being well-loved. The once-austere lines of the case are now bent at the corners, the navy blue paper peeling in places, the ultra-thin pages wrinkled and sometimes stained. It seems to me now, though, to more accurately reflect the language it wishes to capture: Rough-hewn, borrowed, and capable of revealing great beauty.
Incidentally, work began on the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 2000, shortly after it was made available online, and continues until this day; the expected date of completion is 2037.