West Cork and proverbs

Netherlandish Proverbs, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1559) – Wikimedia Commons

I’m just back from the West Cork Literary Festival, talking about The Word Detective again. I included a section about Irish words in English and was surprised, when I researched the subject, just how many exclamations of sorrow and lament we record from Irish, as opposed to other languages. But that’s one of the strands of the Irish ballad tradition, so I shouldn’t really have been surprised.

Another surprise when I got home. My old friend Wolfgang Mieder, Professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont, had written to say he’d just published a review of The Word Detective in Proverbium (“the Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship”). We haven’t met for about thirty years, so this was something of a bolt out of the blue. Wolfgang liked the book (phew!), but had an unusual take on it. The review focuses on the proverbs and proverbial phrases that I employ in the text, which are legion. It was hardly a shock to me, as I had intentionally written in a conversational, informal style, but seeing all of the occurrences listed and commented on gave me pause for thought (made me take a sharp intake of breath; could have knocked me down with a feather; etc.). Good for Wolfgang. The review is here.

Normally genial

At the dictionary offices in Walton Street in 1988

A long article by Andrew Dickson entitled “Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?appeared in The Guardian on 23 February.

It’s a sweeping effort whch manages to include most of the usual suspects including Robert Cawdrey, Samuel Johnson, James Murray, Simon Winchester, Peter Gilliver, Bernie Paton, Michael Proffitt and yours truly.

Dot Wordsworth on “niche”

Frans Snyders, Grapes, Peaches and Quinces in a Niche
Frans Snyders, Grapes, Peaches and Quinces in a Niche (wikimedia commons)

Dot Wordsworth talks about “niche” – “an English word that turned into a French one” – in the Mind Your Language column in The Spectator, here. The article is based on my discussion of the word in The Word Detective, and I’m helpfully described as “not our man in the burka, but the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary“.



David Bowie, Chicago, 2002 (photo by Adam Bielawski)
David Bowie, Chicago, 2002 (photo by Adam Bielawski)

Among all the media evaluations of David Bowie’s life, it was quietly gratifying to see a Time article by Katy Steinmetz (David Bowie and the Oxford Dictionary Had a Mutual Love Affair) highlighting the references to Bowie and his music that have found their way into the OED.

The article couldn’t have been written without all the work that began at the OED in the 1980s on digitising the dictionary, and including new words to capture new usage. Katy – who interviewed me a few years ago about the OED – rightly ties these references to the cultural changes of the period. And that’s what words do …

As the article says:

“Part of what makes the OED so unparalleled is that it is a historical dictionary. Its editors don’t just define words using their guts or brains. They use evidence. They are investigators who gather quotations from all spans of time to show what a word has meant to people, and from that they derive their definitions.

Like figures ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Fonz, Bowie shows up in words spanning the alphabet, the same one that he arranged so beautifully and artfully for so many years.”






Talking at the Athenaeum


Just back from the Athenaeum in London where, at the kind invitation of my friend John Wilson, I gave a talk about – wait for it – the Oxford English Dictionary. None of the OED’s original editors were members of the Club, though it turns out that my predecessor Robert Burchfield was. Like the OED, the Athenaeum is often thought of as a refuge for the literary: Dickens and Thackeray were members, for example, and it is said that their famous handshake at the doors of the Club in 1863 may have indicated their reconciliation after Thackeray had objected so strongly to Dickens’s public separation from his wife. But that had all been brushed under the carpet this week, and they were the friendliest audience I have encountered for a while. I often find this a helpful thing to say about audiences. Both the OED and the Athenaeum are in fact full of scientific, philosophical, and even military content. My prime example of the importance of non-literary sources for the English language was that the British hero and Athenaeum founder, the gallant Duke of Wellington, was the first person (according to the OED) to introduce the British public to the word ganja.

The Dictionary Society of North America

Sometimes the cart comes before the horse. I was working away at something the other day when the email pinged. Could the Dictionary Society of North America please have a photo of me for their newsletter? I’m always delighted – of course – to oblige any such request, but I was puzzled, as I thought I’d been fairly quiet on the dictionary front recently. It turned out, as I read on, that I’d been elected a Fellow of the Society. That’s terrific, and I’m both honoured and honored. Their original letter informing me of my nomination and election must have gone adrift, which makes you wonder what else you miss …