Thursday 14 July 2011

The Meaning of Everything

The subtitle of this blog is the title of a book by Simon Winchester. His book is actually the biography of a book: one of the most famous books in the world. I found the tale it contains fascinating partly because it is mostly set in my city of Oxford. The tale describes the conception and long, long gestation period of the Oxford English Dictionary.
James Murray, the man who edited the OED through many storms and devoted his life to its production, lived and worked quite near to my current home in Oxford for many years, yet only regarded himself as a “sojourner” here. To contain and process the massive number of quotes exemplifying the use of words waiting to enter the dictionary Murray had a large tin shed built in his back garden. It was called the “scriptorium” and, at the insistence of a neighbouring academic, had to be sunk partway into the ground so that in Murray’s words, “no trace of a place of real work shall be seen by the fastidious and otiose Oxford.”
I recognised the word “otiose” in Murray’s quote. I liked its form and sound, but could not remember what it meant and had no access to a dictionary at the time. Fortunately I soon found myself in the delectable town of Lichfield and quickly realised that this was the birth town of Samuel Johnson – ex-student of Pembroke College, Oxford. I visited the house-cum-bookshop in which he lived – now a wonderful museum-cum-bookshop – and soon found a copy of his famous dictionary.
Johnson’s is by no means the first dictionary of English, but is claimed to have been the most comprehensive and soon became the standard reference work. It also set a new paradigm for dictionary production based on quotes from the literature: the paradigm adopted for producing the OED. I quickly flicked through the pages of Johnson’s dictionary - surely I would find “otiose” within its word-packed two volumes.
It wasn’t there. I was shocked and disappointed. It did not strike me as a new word. I mentioned the omission to the museum’s garrulous and helpful manager. He checked that I had not been mistaken and then searched the web for the meaning (which is: idle; indolent, ineffective, futile). Touchingly this all led to a spirited discussion on obscure words within the shop section of the museum – a very Johnsonian outcome I thought.
So now I had refreshed my memory of the word otiose, but I was left with a question. Was Murray’s impression of Oxford in the late 19th century correct – and is the place still fastidious and otiose? It’s my guess that Murray’s comment was influenced by the reaction of his immediate neighbours and his difficult relations with the OED publisher (the Oxford University Press). After all he would have often cycled by the new science building (now the Natural History Museum) in Parks road and could hardly have ignored the industry of those working within it.
Murray died in 1915, thirteen years before the completion and publication of the first complete version of his dictionary. That publication celebrated seventy-one years of hard work for editors, compilers and volunteers: a Herculean effort which must represent the antithesis of otiosity. And a year before Murray died William Morris had produced his first motor car in Oxford laying the foundation for a growing industry in the city which still remains a key source of employment and is hardly the world of the otiose. But perhaps Murray directed his comments towards the academics who were too fastidious to engage in the world of work – are there any of those left in Oxford today I wonder? I wouldn’t know since I too am a sojourner (happily) and very much on the first of the town and gown divide.

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