Editor Liberated by <i> Zyrian</i>

It had something of the look of a religious ceremony, but it was only the English language celebrating itself. The look came from the altarlike aspect of 16 enormous books standing side by side on a table between a small semicircle of reverent speakers and a large semicircle of reverent listeners.

The celebration last week at the Library of Congress honored the completion of a second cycle in the life of that gargantuan project, the Oxford English Dictionary. A-Ant was begun in 1878, and it took 50 years and 12 volumes to ingest and regurgitate the final Z’s. There was a one-volume supplemental belch in 1933--a lot of new words had surfaced over the 50 years--followed by a sated silence.

And then in 1957, Oxford University Press decided that quite a few things had happened over the previous 24 years--the war, science, American English and so on--and it entrusted what it thought would be a relatively modest task to a brash, blue-eyed, 34-year-old New Zealand scholar of Old English. He was to produce a new supplement; a single volume, presumably, to be completed in six or seven years.

Robert W. Burchfield is 63 now, with an aureole of snowy white hair and eyes all the bluer because of it. He is ebullient, which is the historical tense of brash; and he looks as if he had played tennis every day these last 29 years. Instead, it was all words. Four volumes of them. The last one (Se--an ancient Chinese zither--to Zyrian--a people in north central U.S.S.R.) has just been published. Hence, the Library’s celebration and, two weeks ago in New Orleans, a “Special Citation” to Burchfield from the American Booksellers Assn. for his “dedication to documenting English as a living language.”


“It is a relief,” Burchfield said, “and a release from an extraordinarily pleasant prison.” Others will conduct the next cycle: to integrate, with the help of computers, the four-volume supplement into the 12-volume original. As for him, he will shortly reincarcerate himself in a twin project to which the word “pleasant” may or may not apply: a new English grammar and a book on English usage.

As a lexicographer, Burchfield considers himself essentially descriptive; as a grammarian, he will prescribe. He will, in a sense, update Fowler. Can we conceive of his wanting to do such a thing? No. We must conceive of him wanting to do such a thing. “It’s become absolutely clear that the possessive gerund is tottering out,” he insists, with a glint of battles to come.

As to the celebration, Daniel Boorstin, the librarian of Congress, sounded the religious note right off: “The Oxford English Dictionary is the secular counterpart of the Bible,” he said, “and the Supplement is the Apocrypha.” Burchfield wryly adjusted the comparison. “Both are kept on the shelf and taken down mainly in times of stress.”

Because if the love of language is akin to a religion, it is one that, like Hassidism, nourishes itself on disputes. It was not long before the assemblage of lexicophiliacs was on less reverential and more congenial ground. A Princeton linguist’s discourse on the history of the Oxford project was applauded for its wit; but the real pleasure came when an argument broke out over his pronunciation of “gibberish” with a hard “g.” The proper tribute to words is arguing about them.


Still, the thought occurs after this two-day verbal festival: Why do words give such pleasure? Why does Burchfield look as though he’d been playing tennis? Why does Anthony Burgess greet the Supplement with the remark that it is like taking a new love to bed with him? What is the vitality that leaps from the 1,454 pages of this last volume as we go from worryguts to wimmin to wysiwyg-- a computer term; from yawp to yuppie, from takeout to tetraploid, from stereopsis to an s-word so scabrous that its source is a book on door-graffiti and it cannot possibly be reproduced here?

I don’t know. Somewhere on the Thomist side of medieval philosophy there is the notion that to know a thing is to become it. To know a table, in other words, is to acquire some element of tableness. Coasting along from that, then: If knowing something is becoming it, naming something is, in a sense, creating it.

Certainly, one of the most breathtaking recorded instances of divine generosity was not God’s giving Eden--or lending it, if you like--to Adam and Eve. It was allowing them to name the things He put there. If you can visualize manufacturing a cactus, for example, you are contemplating a lot of tedious and scratchy work. Naming it, on the other hand, is close to those fairy tales in which you make a pass with a wand and something exists, all at once and entire.

I was brought up, more or less bilingually, in a part of South America that is flat and essentially treeless. The landscape was named pampa; the little brown birds, gorriones and horneros; the food, asado and galletas. I used all these words, of course, and they signified perfectly ordinary and agreeable things. But my reading--cultural micro-colonialist that I was--was all in English.


And how magical it was to conceive of meadows and woods; entirely Arcadian and without the reality of thistles, poison ivy or a long, hot trudge. What a creature a thrush must be (another little brown bird, of course). Scarlet tanager-- it filled the imagination. Biscuits had to be the variety of manna used in the promised--because imagined--land of rural America. Later, I scratched my ankles in the woods, saw tanagers, which were pretty but awfully small, and ate biscuits. They tasted fine, though they had an annoying aftertaste of baking powder. Words had created a greater reality than reality had a prayer of matching.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s main feature is not the hundreds of thousands of words it incorporates. It is the history of their employment; the trail leading from Shakespeare’s usage to Samuel Johnson’s to Johnny Carson’s. When Humpty Dumpty used a word, according to Lewis Carroll, it meant what he chose it to mean. And to some extent, the 16 volumes are a history of Humpty Dumpties. They are, more than anything else, a history of human invention.

Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher and poet, called words--this is a very loose translation--a surety in this world for the eternal peace of the next. It was not exactly peaceful among those 100-odd scholars and word-enthusiasts. They were, after all, in the sense I have been speaking of, 100-odd rival Adams and Eves. But it was, in the sense cited by the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, supercalifragilistic. (“Exciting approbation, fantastic, fabulous.”)