GLOSSARY / Devotions in the cathedral of language

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOME time ago, long before I started writing about words, I had an argument with a friend over what it would be like to work on the Oxford English Dictionary.

He was indignant at my suggestion that it would be a life of harmless drudgery1 ; surely, he argued, you would be fired by the knowledge that you were contributing to one of the world's great collaborative works, a monument of culture.

'I admire the Pyramids,' I replied, 'but I wouldn't want to help build one.'

I was pleased with this at the time but the longer I spend with the work itself the more I realise how wrong I was. The OED doesn't just dazzle by its scale, by a massive accumulation of identical blocks. The greatest dictionary in any language is more like a cathedral, a patient work of devotion in which every part betrays the concerns of its makers.

Last week the current editorial team gave us two new side chapels, volumes one and two in the Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series.

Side chapels may be a little grand, in truth - there are 6,000 new words and meanings added here, a mere 1 per cent of the 600,000 contained in the last complete edition.

Most coverage has concentrated on new arrivals - himbo, steaming, Baker days - but browsing through both books you can't help but be struck by the picture it gives of the life of lexicographers, the almost unimaginably various forms of knowledge to which they find themselves exposed.

Take couch potato, for example: 'a person who spends leisure time passively or idly sitting around, esp. watching television or videotapes'.

Whichever mason2 crafted this particular block offers an etymology - 'punningly after (boob-)tuber . . . but perh. simply by association with VEGETABLE'.

I'll buy the perhaps myself - the other suggestion is appealing but sounds like a lexicographer's fancy.

The supporting citations come from publications as various as the Los Angeles Times, New Musical Express and the Official Couch Potato Handbook; there is even an entry from the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office which informs you that Robert E Armstrong, of Dixon, California, patented a Couch Potato mark 'for novelty items - namely humorous paper wall certificates'.

The point about this is that it adds little to the function of the definition. Like those parts of a medieval cathedral which are invisible to worshippers but are immaculately finished for God, the redundant details are an act of faith. Without them the Additions Series would be a poor, dry thing - a fussy exercise in tidying up. With them it is something more, a richly entertaining aide-memoire to the intellectual and cultural history of the past few decades.

There are entries for punctuated equilibrium, China syndrome and pneumocystis (a word for which Aids has acted as a grimly effective press agent) as well as less elevated developments.

You learn from the Additions Series that nachos don't emerge from the immemorial mists of Mexican cuisine but were invented in this century as a cocktail snack by Ignacio 'Nacho' Anaya.

True, much of this is produced by specialists who probably never have a grasp of the entirety of the project. All know they will never see the work completed (the acknowledgements record the deaths of four long-standing consultants) but at the heart of the enterprise sits an editorial board that must shape the chaos of language, blackballing some words for lack of pedigree, admitting others to the club.

I would love to have eavesdropped on the debate over 'dingleberry', a word they define as 'dried faecal matter attached to the hair around the anus' and for which they can find no citation outside dictionaries of slang (it was the more poetic 'dangleberry' when I was at school). Did they deliberate gravely over its inclusion or did hilarity possess the meeting?

Whatever the case, its presence is proof of the wide-ranging humanity of the work, the dictionary's equivalent of a spewing figure carved on a misericord.

1 Origin obscure, but the OED suggests dryclea, a suppositional Old English word for labourer.

2 Medieval Latin offers machio, possibly connected with the Latin maceria, wall.