TIME Music

David Bowie and the Oxford Dictionary Had a Mutual Love Affair

Proof of just how much he has shaped the culture

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: Photo of David BOWIE; Davie Jones (Davy Jones), posed, c.1965, reading book (Photo by )
CA/RedfernsDavid Bowie photographed reading a book, c. 1965.

Beloved, bedazzling and bygone David Bowie was, among many things, a lover of the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary shared a quotation about that affection, which has been traced to a livechat he took part in during the late ’90s, that resurfaced on Twitter this Monday:

And the dictionary loved the musician who died on Sunday, too.

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.

When those editors put an entry together, they include only select pieces of that evidence along with any word and their explanation of what it means. They’ll often choose famous quotations from famous authors or descriptions of famous characters, the type of people who define our times just like those lexicographers define our words. 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.

Here is a selection of what does read like a poem, if you have the eye for a different kind of poetry:

absolute (adj.): an unconditional requirement.

I was given a list of 12 absolutes that if the promoter could not provide, I was to cancel the gig on the spot — from the biography In Other Words … David Bowie by Kerry Juby (1986)

alto sax (n.): a saxophone falling between the soprano and tenor in size, and usually pitched in E flat.

Soon becoming the most in-demand studio soloist, his alto sax was featured on records by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and David Bowie. — from Rock Hardware by Paul Trynka (1996)

early (adj.): of a creative work: produced in the initial stages of the creator’s career. Also: designating a creative artist at this stage of his or her career.

Williams’ voice bears a startling resemblance to the early David Bowie. — from a 1994 Magnet magazine article

earthbound (adj.): fixed on or in the earth’s surface; restricted to the earth or to worldly concerns.

He’s best-known for his outer-spaciness, but David Bowie is at his best when he’s earthbound. — from a 2002 New York Magazine article

fifteen minutes (n.): (also fifteen minutes of fame) a brief period of fame or notoriety.

When you see a famous smile No matter where you run your mile To be right in that photograph Andy where’s my fifteen minutes. — from the lyrics of “I can’t Read,” a 1989 song by Bowie’s band Tin Machine

gender-bender (n.): a person who dresses and behaves in a manner characteristic of the opposite sex, or who combines attributes of both sexes; (also) something which challenges or defies traditional notions of gender.

The cult hallows ambiguous sexuality: Mr David Bowie, the rock star ‘gender bender’, is a key hero. — from a 1980 Economist article

imagemonger (n.): (a) a worshipper or venerator of images; (b) a person who sells or makes images; (c) an advocate or user of poetic images; (d) a person who promotes a client’s or his or her own public image.

The two imagemongers, [Andy] Warhol and [David] Bowie, found common ground re: the latter’s alligator shoes. — from Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock’N’Roll by Joe Harrington (2002)

New Romantic (n.): A member of a British music and fashion subculture of the early 1980s which combined the more colourful elements of punk with the sexual ambiguity of glam-rock to form an often androgynous style in which both sexes wore distinctive make-up and dressed in flamboyant, often frilly, clothes. Also as a mass noun: the style of music or fashion associated with this movement.

Then Bowie led via glam to new romantic. — from a 2002 Independent article

pantomorphic (adj.): (also pantamorphic) assuming any or all forms.

The book’s certainly good for late-night lager-fuelled quizzes, though…Name that ‘pantomorphic chameleon’ in one! (David Bowie). — from a 1993 Mojo magazine article

pay dirt (n.): profit; success. Also to achieve profit or success.

Bowie hits celestial pay dirt on one of the pieces. — from a 1977 Rolling Stone article

progentital (adj.): productive; reproductive.

David Bowie..must reassert his primacy as the progenital icon of the new. — from a 1980 Times article

rock (n.): a genre of popular music which evolved from rock ‘n’ roll during the mid to late 1960s, characterized by a strong beat, the use of the (esp. electric) guitar, and musical experimentation, having a harsher sound than pop and often regarded as more serious or complex.

David Bowie and The Sex Pistols [had demonstrated] that a thorough knowledge of rock‘s subtexts and devices could be exploited by the media-wise for riches, fame and controversy. — from Crosstown Traffic by C.S. Murray (1989)

to rub elbows (phr.): to come into contact, to associate (with others).

They’ve toured that world and rubbed elbows with profound-statement-makers like David Bowie and U2. — from a 2007 Time Out article

rumly (adv.): oddly, strangely; questionably.

Two years earlier, Bowie had rumly told the press: ‘People like Lou Reed and I are probably predicting the end of an era.’ — from Strange Fascination by D. Buckley (2001)

starf***er (n.): coarse slang a person, esp. a woman, who seeks out celebrities with a view to having sex with them.

Bowie can also explore his audience, the parasitical star-f***ers, kick-seeking, dancing to their deaths. — from a 1973 Let It Rock magazine article

thang (n.) = colloquial for thing

Dave [i.e. David Bowie] is back, after an affair with heavy! high-energy killer techniques, back into his 1966-ish, Tony Newley/pop-rock thang. — from a 1972 Rolling Stone article

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