Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dad, me, and the OED

I get my love of reading from my parents. They're both voracious readers, and their books are stacked at least three deep on the bookshelves they've shoehorned into every available space in their home.

As far back as I can remember, I had access to books - lots and lots and lots of books. My only shortage was time - there simply wasn't enough of it to read everything I wanted to read. So yes, I was one of those kids given to reading under the covers by flashlight when I should have been sleeping. And though I know my parents were on to my dodge, I don't remember ever being ordered to shut off the flashlight and go to sleep. As strict as they were, bedtimes were never enforced if it meant closing a book before I was ready.

So while my parents share equally in laying the foundations for my love of reading, my love of words - their power to entertain, persuade, amaze, incite, and inspire - was a gift from my father. It came as he and I played the card game "Authors," when I was still too young to have read any of the featured novels (no wonder he always won), and he shared his memories of why each book made an impression on him the first time he read it. It came when I was about 10 and he handed me a copy of Freckles as if it were solid gold, with the wish that I would love it as much as he did (to this day, Freckles is one of my favorite books, and not just because of the words on the page). It came again and again over the years as he would look up from something he was reading and say, "You have to read this." And then I would read, and he would wait, and when I looked up we would shake our heads and say, "Wow!" in unison, marveling together at the power of words wrought by a master.

I don't think either of us realized it at the time, but word by word and wow by wow, he awoke in me the dream to be a writer. And though I didn't have the courage to go for it all out, the way Jo Rowling did when she scurried down the Classics hall instead of studying something that would pay the bills, I settled on journalism, the best compromise of art and pragmatism I could find. I did it at least in part to honor him, by making a living with the words he taught me to love.

Our mutual fascination with words has endured, as our gifts to each other this past Christmas illustrate. I gave him "The Adventure of English," a BBC-produced program on the history of the English language from the pre-history roots of Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf to the ways technology and the internet continue to change and enrich the language today. He gave me a matched, leather-bound set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary and its accompanying thesaurus. I was, in a word, awestruck. As I seek to become a novelist, the man who first taught me the love of words had equipped me with the best possible companions for the journey.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Dad. "You're probably going to think I'm nuts," he said, "but that same book club where I got your dictionary and thesaurus is having a sale on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives you every synonym for a word in the order it came into the language and the year of the first known use. I thought that might be helpful for someone who writes historical novels. Would you like a set?"

Would I like a set?!?!?! Although I'd never mentioned it to him, the Historical Thesaurus of the OED has been on my Amazon "wish list" since its publication was first announced, long before its formal release. But at $400 plus shipping, it wasn't an indulgence this unpublished novelist was likely to allow herself. "What's the price?" I asked, barely able to breathe. "Two hundred sixty-five dollars," he said. "Plus shipping. If you won't let me buy it for you, maybe we can split it." I know a good deal when I hear it. And though I insisted on paying the full cost, no kid with a new bicycle was ever happier than my dad when I told him to place the order.

The shipment arrived two weeks ago. Though I know it nearly killed him, Dad resisted the temptation to open them for a full week, until I could drive to Raleigh and we could share the experience together. We spent a couple of transcendent hours thumbing through the tissue-paper pages as I read the entries aloud and he looked on with shining eyes. If I live forever, even with this tremendous resource sitting open at my fingertips, I doubt I'll find a word from any era that sums up that golden moment better than the one we used time and again through the years when overwhelmed by the sublime wonder of the English language: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

That's from the Scots, by the way, and came into the language in 1540. Don't like wow? The thesaurus offers a quarter column of synonyms from Olde English to the 21st Century. If that isn't cool, I don't know what is. Yup, I'm my father's daughter, through and through.
Having difficulty posting comments? Just choose the Name/URL option, enter your name (first name is sufficient), hit "continue" and then hit "post comment" and your comment will appear.


  1. This is a lovely entry. What a wonderful resource and I didn't know that wow came from the Scots in the 16th century, but I'm intrigued.

  2. Oh I covet your new books! I too have a love of words and their origins but never had anyone to share my passion until I started home schooling my daughter. She has caught my enthusiasm and written a book (age 5) and several poems (age 7). I was dsicouraged from seeking a career in writing; told it wasn't a practical or "real" job so the sale of my first book has been even sweeter!
    Good luck on your writing journey. I've added your site to my page!

  3. I had to chuckle reading this. When I was 12 I came home from the Burbank Public Library and told my parents the only thing they had to get me for Christmas was my own OED set. In the late 50's the full OED was 900.00 so it was a pass. But I always thought it would have been such an amazing buy. Now I subscribe to the online OED and love it!

  4. Ooh... I sense an OED party at your house in our future. :)

  5. I want a set! Great post.

  6. Thanks Dad ! Now I can use more "onomatopoetic" words now.

  7. Sounds like a wonderful set of books to go along with an even more wonderful set of memories!

    (and if you ever decide you just don't have room for the books, let me know. I'll make room on my shelves. They'll be going to a good home, honest!) ;)

  8. I can tell from reading your blog that they would be right at home, Donna. But I think you might have to arm wrestle my husband for them. He doesn't call himself Vernacular Man for nothing!

  9. I am pea green with envy, Bernie. Can you get more than one set with that discount? And I'm surprised you managed to only spend a few hours going through the books the first time. I think I would have disappeared for days. :-)