My Precioussss….

Posted: August 3rd, 2023 under Craft, Life beyond writing, the writing life.
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Arrived this week as two BIG, HEAVY  boxes was a used copy of a 45 year old  Oxford English Dictionary.   Our Compact OED, which I used heavily while writing the Deed of Paksenarrion, Surrender None, and Liar’s Oath, is beyond my eyesight now, even with reading glasses and a magnifying glass..  But it was invaluable.  At that time I still had my HS graduation thesaurus as well, but the Compact OED gave me enough of the history and alternate meanings of words to provide a precision the thesaurus was never meant to achieve.  But as I said, with succeeding years it became harder to use it once my eyes started giving me more and more difficulty.  That row of cream-colored volumes in the picture is  of the 13 volumes of the 1978 printing of the Oxford English Dictionary.  12 volumes + supplement volume.   The words sit over there, chattering quietly to one another, bumping elbows sometimes, from volume to volume.  And I’m renewing my acquaintance with this very senior member of the family of Engilsh dictionaries, first met in Fondren Library of Rice University.  It’s not the latest…but it contains things from before the first.  One of the words I looked at yesterday, when it arrived, is referenced to a Psalter in 885 CE with another reference to it in 1000 in Beowulf.  


The advantage of such a research tool for writers?   Great is too narrow a word.    It’s historical, which means the etymology of the words goes back to the first recorded print source in England, and usage is recorded as “Obs” or “Archaic” but not ignored to give just the modern.   That’s how I learned today that “deploy” was originally cognate with “display” in the sense of “spread out to be more visible.”  Troops deployed meant a close formation opened out…not at all what it means in US usage today.  Any recorded use of the word from the first time it’s known to have shown up is included.  It’s that long because there’s information in there, most of it information useful to writers.   If you want every word to fit (“the right word in the right order”)  like a puzzle piece with the other words, it helps to know more, to grasp its entire history, the forces that shaped it.

The latest printing runs to 20 volumes, so of course has even more words, and takes up half again as much space, but this one is close to the one I used at Rice from time to time (actually, I mostly got into it for fun and relaxation and satisfying curiosity.)  I also played around in dictionaries of various sciences.  But I knew enough of the OED to know I wanted one.  We pounced on the Compact OED as soon as we heard about it; we used it for decades, including playing OED Scrabble with friends (any word that was in the OED was fine, but only in the main entry, not all the variant spellings….except in some sessions.)   Made for slow Scrabble, but two of the other players would run a game of chess concurrently, one would read a book, and I would play with the dictionary between needing to look things up.

Anyway, I’m already enjoying this moderate monster.  I’ve done only two directed searches so far; most of it’s been opening a volume randomly, looking on the two visible pages to see what looks interesting and writing down any unfamiliar words.  That got me “fife-rail, eadi, luddock, lue, maritage, marish, pun (not *that* pun), punatoo, starkle, stote, sumph, hopdog, hore, hoppet, and huik”, none of which I knew, and several pages of history and past usages of “stark,” some additional usages of “stot” …both words I thought I knew.   Today I looked up a word from Lee & Miller’s book Trade Secret….“replevin” as in “a writ of replevin” and got its complete etymology and expanded meaning.   Plus other words last night and today I didn’t actually write down (silly me; I don’t have an instant very sticky memory for words the way I did as a younger person, when absorbing vocabulary was easy.)  But I’m getting the kind of “deep awareness” of many of the words that made me confident in Paksworld when I started it and will restore some of that “feel” in Horngard.  For instance, there’s a scene in which Our Hero is talking to some displaced persons in hill country, who speak a variant dialect.   The OED has plenty of those–genuine  archaic terms and spellings linked to their usage in different counties in the UK, so…I can sprinkle them in where they go.


  • Comment by Jim DeWItt — August 3, 2023 @ 4:01 pm


    The hazard of OED and Brewers and their ilk is that unless you are highly disciplined, they suck you in, jumping from reference to cross-reference to cross-reference, and before you know it the afternoon is gone, leaving you with a mildly pleasurable buzz of vaguely remembered words and slight eyestrain.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 3, 2023 @ 5:15 pm


    And that is different from web-surfing how? I find (having done it recently as last night) that I come out of the OED with yes, new burs of knowledge stuck to my mental fur, and the new or re-evaluated words in my little bag, with some eyestrain but nothing as bad as the screen eyestrain, but much happier…whereas the same time spent prowling my usual internet haunts, particularly political stuff on You Tube (music’s not bad at all: I don’t have to watch) leaves me with a headache and a strong feeling of guilt that I haven’t accomplished ANYthing. So far, all the OED rambles have sort of soothed and spread balm on the scratched and sore places: the kingdom of the mind is still there. I can still access the joy of learning something worth learning (or so I think it.)

    Will see how the writing goes when, post convention, I allot X time/day for study and Y time/day for writing.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — August 10, 2023 @ 7:30 am


    Now I am needing to add another item to my book(s) shopping list.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — August 30, 2023 @ 6:48 am


    Hi. My Preciousness – so how do you plan to wear all these thick heavy books on your finger? Maniacal laughter. Enjoy.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 30, 2023 @ 8:05 am


    It’s the words I’ll be wrapping around my fingers…and tongue, so I can use the harmless but archaic and obsolete ones as insults. For instance, “cobbard.” It has a nice feel in the mouth, sounds like it could be a real insult, but…nothing profane or obscene but a common fireplace or stove element. Imagine in a duel (with swords, of course) saying “There, you cobbard! Take THAT!”

  • Comment by Shirley Alford — September 27, 2023 @ 9:15 pm


    I use the online OED. at 71, scalable fonts are my friend.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 25, 2023 @ 10:16 pm


    Shirley, I know many people use the online version. I do not do well with more and more screen time, even with scalable fonts. I have damaged eyes already and the OED with a magnifying glass in good light is easier on them than the screen. I’m glad you can use the online OED. I’m glad I have the one sitting on the console over there.

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