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A first love returns

September 16, 2007|Nick Owchar

She was beautiful, and I let her go. I was in college at the time, and my means were limited. I remember her simple elegance, her knowledge and, above all, her Britishness. Her age didn't bother me. But she wanted $100 to go home with me -- so I left behind that set of the Oxford English Dictionary (there were 12 or 13 volumes, dating to the 1930s) on the library clearance table. Too expensive. And I've never quite gotten over it.

Until now.

The sixth edition of "The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" (Oxford University Press: 3,888 pp., $175 including CD-ROM) is a deep consolation for anyone suffering such lexical sorrows. It is two volumes to the most recent OED edition's 20; 85,000 illustrative quotations to the full set's 2.5 million. (My younger self certainly couldn't have afforded it either.) You still get a tangible sense of the English language's development since 1700 as well as the labors of many brilliant contributors, among them the asylum inmate Dr. W.C. Minor (whom Simon Winchester describes in "The Professor and the Madman") and writers Julian Barnes and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Note Tolkien's work (which Winchester also writes about) on the origins of the word "walrus": "Old Norse hrosshvalr ('horse-whale')." From there, one's gaze helplessly wanders (Old English wandrian) to other words and their interesting evolutions, like "weird" (once Old English for "fate," now stripped of destiny to mean anything strange).

Though word junkies will find much that is fascinating in the SOED about the English language's changes, David Crystal explains in his introductory essay that this linguistic flux was cause for alarm in the 18th century: "Many people felt that the language was out of control and was descending into chaos. The statesman Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, for example, wrote in 1754: 'It must be owned that our language is at present in a state of anarchy.' " ("Anarchy," by the way, comes from Greek roots meaning "without a leader" -- "an + arch.")

My only gripe (origin, in part, from terms for "griffin" and "vulture") is the eye-fatiguing small type. There's no inclusion of a magnifying glass, as there is for the two-volume "Compact Edition" of the entire OED -- but that's what the CD-ROM is for. I'll stop complaining and just be thankful (from the Old English "panc"+ful).

Nick Owchar

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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