Superfluity and Bounty

Superfluity and Bounty

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a reserve set aside for thinking about the categorical inferiority of destruction to creation.


I received the 4,000-page, two-volume, clothbound, slipcased Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford; $395) in a package almost big enough to climb into. Its publication on October 22 was the consummation of forty-five years of work by four core editors and a revolving team of volunteers and grad students, collecting about 800,000 meanings divided into 236,400 subcategories, subsumed under three main headings: "The External World," "The Mental World" and "The Social World." It is the first historical thesaurus in any language. On opening Volume 1, The Thesaurus (Volume 2 is The Index), I had to take a few minutes to orient myself to a taxonomy specified by call number; it was as though an entire library had been mapped onto the pages of a codex, and I, a character in a Borges story, had inadvertently tumbled in.

In a real library, call numbers refer to whole other books on steel shelves. Even in a proper dictionary, word definitions and usages point outside the page to what we call the real world. But in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED), meanings point toward each other, in a thickening web of association that accrues vertically through time and horizontally across gradations of sense. For instance, the synonyms for "destroy" (, vt.) begin with "abreotan" in Old English, a language foreign to us; fifty-six words later we recognize "astroy" (c. 1200-1340), and as the list segues into modern English, categories ramify: one may "annihilate/blot out of existence," or one may merely "bring to ruin/put an end to" or mercifully "cut short/check." Drifting laterally, we notice that entry continues the theme with "breaking/cracking," gives us "cutting," and subheaded under "cutting" are "tearing," "damaging," "rubbing," "pressing/squeezing," etc. An abrupt transition from category 01.05.02. to 01.05.03 brings us to "causation," a ponderous Aristotelian category whose list of synonyms is virtually anesthetic.

Incidentally, the HTOED did escape destruction once–by fire, in 1978. While its building lay in ruins, ashen lexicographers were miraculously able to retrieve their handwritten slips from the drawers of metal filing cabinets, intact. Puzzling over the logic of leaping from "destruction" to "causation," I happened to flip back to the beginning of category 01.05.02 and realized my error. I hadn’t noticed that "destruction" wasn’t its own major category; it was, instead, a subcategory of "creation." Oh, OK, I thought: "causation" follows "creation." Makes sense. 01.05.04 is "occurrence," establishing a smooth line from the transcendent to the quotidian. But how puny "destruction" now seemed–it doesn’t even merit its own entry. Destruction is totally dependent on creation.

Tracing the logical flow of categories backward and forward, one may forget the initial reason for consulting the HTOED altogether. (Why did I land on "destruction" in the first place?) Finally, one extricates oneself, but not without making a mental note of odd and interesting facts, such as that in the sixteenth century the practice of cutting out pages from a book was to geld–as in desexing horses. The metaphors alone could distract a poet for hours. W.H. Auden wrote that for a "desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways." The same goes for its cousin, the Historical Thesaurus.

This sense of enchantment pervades the HTOED, not least because it is a handmade thing, compiled of flammable slips of paper over the course of almost half a century. It is an artifact of a mindset that sees systematization not just as an end in itself but as a moral act of anti-entropy. The founder of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray (1837-1915), began his education as an archaeology enthusiast. His granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray, claimed he could look at an ancient earthwork in the Scottish countryside beside the furrows dug for a new railway and envision a time when both would be part of the archaeological history of Britain.

But as a Scots borderer who came late to the Queen’s English, Murray naturally gravitated to comparative philology and etymology. He met a professor at Edinburgh, Melville Bell, who had invented Visible Speech, a phonetics system that lent itself to the study of dialects (which were already, in the late 1850s, perceived to be in danger of extinction). They became close, and Murray gave a lesson in electricity to Bell’s son, Alexander Graham. In the future, when the younger Bell would invent the telephone, he would declare that James Murray was its grandfather. Thus does the gadget that literally means "sound" (phone) "from afar" (tele) share an origin with the dictionary with the longest reach. Another admirer of Murray was Francis James Child, the Harvard professor who made his fame compiling a canonical variorum of oral English ballads. What we think of as a time of rapid technological expansion–railways, telephones, electricity–was also a time of collection, restoration and preservation of an endangered past, a past threatened with extinction before it could even be grasped and understood.

The Victorians were enchanted by knowledge systems, but those knowledge systems yielded callings to high ideals–anti-entropic labors of love. Today we have high-speed data processors to crunch statistics for us, and call it even. Soon enough, the information in the HTOED will be online and available by subscription, so that no one has to retrieve from her post office a package big enough to step into, just as we don’t have to step into library stacks anymore to retrieve a Google book. This will be an invaluable service to writers of historical fiction, for example. But that’s like saying that gardens are primarily for growing vegetables. Electronic subscriptions imply utility; owning the book implies other values. It is a solid reminder of the flesh-and-blood people who devoted decades to its creation. It is a reserve set aside for contemplation–browsing; thinking; thinking about the difference between superfluity and bounty; thinking about the categorical inferiority of destruction to creation.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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