Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Word Wonderlust

Oxford English Dictionary - 2nd Edition
Version 4.0 [CD-ROM]
I love words.  That's no secret.  But it's maybe not so well known that I can get lost in a dictionary or thesaurus as easily as in a story.  Maybe it is because every word has a story and every word is a story seed.  I love learning a word's whole story--its part(s) of speech, its plural/singular modes, its past/present/future tenses, it's pronunciation, its usage history, its etymology, its synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and anagrams.  Most dictionaries and thesauruses have only 30 to 50% of all that for only 40 to 50% of currently existing words and most severely neglect the archaic and obsolete words.

There is only one dictionary that does it all for every single English word they have been able to discover going back as far as the written record goes.  That is the twenty volume OED which I've lusted after ever since I encountered it on the reference shelves at Southern Oregon University (then Southern Oregon State College) in the mid 80s.  With every volume worth over $100 it was clearly out of any price range I could hope to reach in the next decade.

Then I discovered the compact two volume boxed set with the magnifying glass for reading it.  As they didn't make it compact by eliminating words or information.  Rather they shrunk the text and enlarged the pages to cram several pages on each page.  That was still well into the triple digits then but seemed reachable.  But in the nearly 3 decades since I never quite reached it and by the early 2000s my vision had degenerated so much I feared that I would need a microscope rather than a magnifier to read it.

A few years back I was excited to read something about the OED keepers embarking on the project of digitizing the OED.  When it finally became available it was still out of my reach and customer reviews were not exactly raving.  Search and navigation was clunky  But with the recent upgrade to 2.0 they seem to be doing better.  There is also the online version available for subscribers.

I put it in my wishlist at amazon.com mostly as a way to bookmark it so I could follow the reviews and price changes.  Recently there have been significant price drops from some sellers that have me almost seeing myself reaching it if I were to stand on my tippy-tippy toes and stretch my arm until my joints pop.

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
2 volume set [Hardcover]
I've been over to drool over it a lot lately and one of those times I discovered this Historical Thesaurus of the OED which focuses in on the usage history of the words.  And it would have to be blue!  I am picturing it sitting on my desk so vividly right now I'm almost surprised I get nothing but air when I reach for it.  It is very new and it will be some time before it goes digital.  And as you can see if you follow the link below the picture it is quite pricey.

Recently I saw a quote from Stephen King saying that no word you find in a thesaurus is the right word.  No exceptions.  I agree with the spirit of that comment in that I do believe using a thesaurus while writing the first draft is quite questionable.  But I do think it has a role in the planning and research stages and the rewrite stage.

The first in order to learn about the difference in usage between one era and another, one country and another even one city and another, and one social class and another, and one ethnic group and another.  Also to collect jargon word specific to the professions, hobbies, jobs, and such of each character contemplating what their vocabulary is likely to contain.  This would save a lot of time during the first draft by priming the pump with the knowledge

In the rewrite it would be useful for finding more precise words when you have overused a general word like blue, or peace, or sunny, or bright.  And also for finding the right word for a character when there is a glaring discrepancy between their life experience and the words you put in their mouth on the fly.

For example a 30-something woman who dropped out of school in 9th grade and has raised two kids into their late teens in one shoddy, tiny, pest infested apartment, house or trailer after another while working multiple part time, back breaking, seasonal jobs like a fruit packing plant, tree planting for the Forestry Service, landscaping, motel maid, the shipping dock during the month or so before a major holiday, and drive-in janitor would not be using the same vocabulary as the 30-something woman ahead of her in line at KFC dressed in a power suit who had graduated from Stanford with a Master's in Marketing and Promotion and is currently doing contract work for politicians, writer's, public speakers, and media and sports celebrities while her nanny is raising her kids in an 8000 square foot 3 story McMansion.

0 tell me a story:

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