The Word Detective…Again

Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.

The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have  contained the sentence  “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.

Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.

Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”

I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.

What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by  Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.

Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens,  duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.

But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions.  Contribute to his site. I’m going to.

You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.

I’m going to.

D is for Detective

D is for Detective, as in The Word Detective (2016) by John Simpson. I’d save this book for the “W” entry, but it’s due at the library and another word-hungry reader wants it.

The book’s subtitle is “Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary.” How many of us have been at a dictionary? The author, who worked on the OED for forty years, is referring to the physical headquarters at Oxford University, at one point described as “gloomy corridors…the office mirrored the sort of work we were doing.”

In 1976, John Simpson, a graduate student finishing up a master’s in Medieval Studies, became a cub lexicographer, ultimately assuming the role of chief editor and overseeing the 1989 update and online version. The OED was first suggested in 1857, editorial work began in 1879, and a final 10-volume edition was published in 1928. Simpson articulates his love for the job in the first chapter.

There have been many accounts of the dictionary’s history, but very few (if any) have managed to capture the excitement of the job––the fact that each day you are uncovering small but significant facts that have been almost entirely forgotten often for centuries and you have the opportunity to bring them back to the surface. The thrill of discovery, like the elation of a well-rounded definition, is almost like creating a poem.

His first task was to update the entry for “queen,” which began as the Anglo-Saxon word cwen. His process for providing new historical information and usage was to collect index cards in the basement of the building, gather additional information from books in the department’s reference library on the first floor, and write definitions in his office on the ground floor.

Hundreds of employees worked on the update. The process of hiring them is different than I imagined:

…Lexicographers veer as far away as they can from people who claim to love words. What is the point of loving words and at the same time expecting to analyze and classify them?” In the process of hiring people, Simpson asserts, “So how do we weed out these word lovers?” By giving them an exam, or, he says, “you just look around the room and see ho is left-handed and you appoint them. It’s a scandalous approach for a professional, but it’s backed up by real data.

 I love the OED, acquainting myself with the 20-volume print edition at the Whatcom Community College Library, the University of Southern Maine’s online version, and learning the book’s crazy history from Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. I missed electronic acesss when I completed my MFA degree, but my wife bought me a year’s subscription last Christmas and also showed me a review of The Word Detective in Christian Century, my current favorite OED book.

 Simpson’s favorite book about the OED is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, published in 2008. Simpson says Shea’s book “starts to bring the dictionary to life in a way that almost all other books about dictionaries fail to do.” I’ve placed a hold at the library for that title and Shea’s Bad English: A history of Linguistic Aggravation.

 If you pick up a copy of Simpson’s book, you might go to chapter 9 entitled “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,”

 Eleven pages of the 34 pages in “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,” is about the f-word, but I didn’t get a subscription to the OED or Simpson’s book so that I could focus on the OED’s category of “coarse slang.” Or did I? J Check out tomorrow’s blog, E for Elucidation


E is for Elucidation: “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk”

In “D is for Detective,” I left OED former editor John Simpson’s discussion of the f-word dangling. He titled chapter nine of The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk.” I read it right away.

Then I went to the online version’s current listing, in which the f-word is identified as “coarse slang,” first used in sixteen century Middle English, “Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit.” Subsequent variations include fukkand, fucke, ffuck, f-k and today’s easily recognizable four-letter expletive.

Simpson asserts that the best way to see how editorial policies are employed in practice is to study a specific word. I stretched to find an “e” word—elucidation—to continue the discussion on this blog. Simpson’s efforts are all about elucidation as the OED defines it: “the action or process of elucidating, throwing light upon, making plain or intelligible.”

Yeah, I know, judging from many overheard conversations, people just want to use the four-letter word––or do it––not learn about editorial policies and etymological history. If you are interested, read on.

The first edition of the OED omitted the f-word. The editors didn’t even work on it. “If the editors had worked on fuck,” Simpson writes, “it would have been published in 1898 which was when the entry immediately preceding was published (fucivarous: eating, or subsisting on seaweed.)” Dictionary readers could stomach details of seaweed-eating, but the cultural climate was unfriendly to candid language. Says Simpson:

The closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign in Britain were not known for their liberal and enlightened attitude towards sex, and the inclusion of fuck would have probably involved the editors and the publishers in a short walk to a long stretch in prison.

OED Editors considered including the word in its 1933 supplement, but, as in Queen Victoria’s day, they would have been arrested for “gross indecency.” In 1960, Penguin, the British publishers of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, beat legal action that would have prevented them from publishing an “obscene book.” In 1964, the Penguin English Dictionary included the verb fuck, thereby freeing others to publish what they felt compelled to publish and to sidestep incarceration.

Both audacity and caution prevailed at the OED, however. The 1972 OED Supplement used the more delicate word “copulation” instead of “sexual intercourse,” as well as, Simpson reports, a few “colorful” examples. For the OED3, published in 1989, the editors mounted an ambitious search for the earliest usage. The result: the word fuck, though concealed in code, was included in a religious context.

“Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk comes from this sentence from 1500 AD: “Non sunt in oeli, quia gxddbovxxkxzt pg ifmk.” The first part is Latin: “They [the monks] are not in heaven because…” The rest, Simpson says, was a cypher. for “fuccant uuiuys of heli,” “they are are enjoying sexual intercourse.”

Simpson says, “It seems likely—from the fact that the whole expression  was endrypted—that it wasn’t the word itself that had to be hidden from public view, but rather the insalubrious activities of the monks.”

And, that’s about all I want to say about a word I never use and don’t even want to hear.