In a poem written near the end of his life, W. S. Graham imagined himself as a ‘wordy ghost’, ‘floating across the frozen tundra / of the lexicon and the dictionary’. Like Graham – like many people – I am also a ‘wordy ghost’, who loves haunting the pages of lexicons, dictionaries and glossaries. Unlike Graham I find the pages of such books to be not ‘frozen tundra’, sterile and barren – but fabulous forests, alive with delving word-roots and spreading canopies of connotation.
When I turned 16, my grandparents gave me the two volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and I still have them within reach of my desk now: the blue cloth binding bowed outwards at the top of each spine from all the times I’ve hooked a finger in to heave a volume out. For my eighteenth birthday, my parents gave me The Complete OED in its ‘micrographic’ single-volume form. They wouldn’t tell me how much it cost. It was 2,400 pages long, weighed around five kilograms, and came with its own magnifying glass and light – for each printed letter was less than a millimetre high. Reading the single-volume Complete was a form of worship, and I spent hours devotionally bowed over its dense-packed pages, tracking derivations and scrying definitions. Once – a true, terrible story, this – I balanced it above a bedroom door I’d left purposefully ajar, as a booby-trap for my brother. But my grandfather, visiting that day, was the first to walk into the room, and the dictionary struck him so hard on the head it knocked him to the ground.
These days my students in Cambridge all consult the online Oxford English Dictionary at the click of a mouse. It’s a brilliant resource, and far quicker than leafing through the tissue-paper pages of the hard copy. It weighs nothing, and magnifying glasses are not required. Occasionally, though – when we’re pausing over a particular word in a super
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