The OED is my friend, by Emily Winslow


When my sweetheart moved from England to California many years ago, he got there ahead of most of his belongings. He moved into a work friend’s spare bedroom and slept in a sleeping bag. I asked him (over the phone, in the course of our long-distance courtship) what of his things he missed most. His answer? His OED.

The OED, in case you don’t know, is the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes in two versions: the full (20 volumes) and the compact (2 volumes + supplement). You may think that the compact version is edited down in some way. It’s not. The text is literally shrunk, and the set comes with a magnifying glass.

Looking things up in the OED is a treat. It gives the first known usage of a word, which is handy when you’re trying to figure out whether two words are related or whether someone in another time would have used it. The best part is the other words you stumble across along the way. It’s a rabbit hole in there. You go in to find one specific piece of info, and before you know it everyone is gathered around, pointing at unusual words and reading definitions aloud.

Some words that have given us pleasure along the way:

Crepuscular (“Of or pertaining to twilight”)

Feeze (“To twist or turn with a screw-like motion”)

Rommack (“To rummage or fish up.”)

Aren’t they fun to say?

The story of how the OED was compiled is fascinating. The editors put out a call to the public for assistance, and only later discovered that the most prolific of those volunteers, compiling thousands of word histories and sending them to the editors through the mail, did so from a lunatic asylum. Check out this history in The Professor and the Madman.

The electronic version doesn’t provide the fun that browsing does, and requires subscription, but is surely handy.

Your challenge: Make a sentence using all three of the above obscure words.

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Emily Winslow

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This article has 10 Comments

  1. The crepuscular time of day is when I most enjoy rommacking a bottle of wine and feezing (feezeing?) a corkscrew to unleash the contents!

  2. I have a sort of min edition of the OED on CDrom. It’s cool because you can click on the word and hear the pronunciation. My mum has the real thing though and I love it!

  3. “Fish up” is like “dig up”–like fishing two matched socks out of an unfolded pile of laundry. I’m American myself, and knew the phrase–maybe it’s a regional thing?

    (Speaking of regionalisms–In the New York area it used to be common to wait “on line” rather than “in line.” I still say sometimes that I’m “on line”–and of course people think I mean I’m on the computer which is just all kinds of confusing 😉

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