Donaldus. We live in a great time. Amazon.com notified me just now that my 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary have shipped. I should get the hefty package(s) by the end of the week. I could have paid extra for rush delivery, but I feel that I was pushing it just ordering the books. A close friend chided me, said online access is splendid, and instantaneous, and no shelf space is required. True–but I feel somehow that a wight [check OED] who considers himself in some sense a “man of letters” ought to have the best dictionary every printed, and in its full weight. I cannot imagine treating language lightly in a house that contains those volumes, the work of men and women of genius who spent their lives painstakingly investigating every known word of English, however common or seemingly insignificant. The OED is one of the great achievements of humankind. It ranks with the Apollo moon landings; with the cracking of the genetic code; with the Linnaean classification of plants, with the Encyclopedia Britannica.
And now they are on their way. My tenure with them will be relatively brief. But my daughter, a young brilliant and earnest humanist, will cart them through life, annoying her mate, threatening her children when they want to color their pages with crayons, telling the odd anecdote of her father to someone at a dinner party at her house, holding a thick volume in the dusk and thinking about the glory and the challenges of the life of the mind. I will leave a couple of post-its somewhere deep in the volumes. Perhaps she will find them. Perhaps someone we never met will find them 100 years from now
The pity is that I had to wait until the post-literature, postmodern moment cheapened the volumes to the point that I could–just barely–justify laying out $400 for them. But this is the only life I get, and it is buttressed somehow by the thought that mighty minds gave their lives and their eyes to the completion of a work of staggering significance. When I edited Lewis & Clark in North Dakota, what was really original in my annotations came from the OED, which showed that many words other editors have puzzled over or just let slip under their editorial radar are actually words of the early nineteenth century, used correctly by Meriwether Lewis, and until my research never annotated by any reader of the journals. My greatest professor, Thomas Clayton, advised me long ago never to give up on a word until I had looked it up in the OED. And he was, as always, right.
One of the editors of the OED said, “a dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view.” Precisely.