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Education: Haarlem to Nzima

3 minute read

Compiling a major dictionary, like the building of the pyramids, is a task that takes time. The monumental first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was begun during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the work continued for 70 years through ten volumes and 15,487 folio-size pages that included all the “common words” written in English since about the time of Alfred the Great.

No sooner had the last volume been issued in 1928 than the editors conscientiously began to work on a one-volume supplement, which was published in 1933. Now they are beavering away on a four-part, 50,000-entry supplement to the supplement, and they have just come out with Volume II, which takes the ever-changing language from H for “Haarlem” (a blue pigment containing alumina) through N for “Nzima” (an African language spoken in Ghana).

Latter-Day Monsters. The new volume, priced at a modest $60, contains more than 13,000 new and often exotic words, or new meanings for old words, along with some 125,000 quotations that illustrate their origins* and usage. Browsing through its 1,282 pages is like rummaging through a kind of verbal attic of folkways and attitudes that have shaped the language over the past half-century. The editors have placed their imprimatur on “McCarthyism,” “McLuhanism,” “Maoism” and “Naderism.” They have acknowledged a menagerie of latter-day elves and monsters, from “Hobbits” (Novelist J.R.R. Tolkien’s small, furry earth dwellers) to “Nessie” (who lives in Loch Ness). Trade names like Levi’s, Muzak, Nescafe and Jell-O have officially entered the English language.

Many of the new words have surprisingly old-fashioned genealogies. People were “mugged” in provincial Lincolnshire as early as 1866, as in “I gave him a sound mugging, he was so chappy.” A Mrs. P. Snowden, traveling in Bolshevik Russia, went “behind the Iron Curtain at last” in 1920, a generation before Winston Churchill gave the term currency in a speech at the end of World War II.

Many of the entries are borrowed from U.S. minority groups (such as the Yiddish “kvetch” and the Spanish “machismo”), causing Supplement Editor R.W. Burchfield to fear that the Queen’s English will become all but incomprehensible with the invasion of “late Mayflower” Americanese. Nonetheless, three of his 30 staffers are now scouring the byways of the American landscape for new words to put into Volume III. By the time they reach the Zs it will be 1982, and the supplement to the supplement will undoubtedly need updating.

*Many of the new words, according to the O.E.D., first appeared in TIME, including “nudism” (1929), “minicrisis” (1971) and the verb to “Jeep” (1942).

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