James Gleick on being cited in the OED

James Gleick on being cited in the OED

I can’t remember when I discovered that I am credited (if that is the right word) as a source for several words in the Oxford English Dictionary. I remember how I felt, though. I was chuffed. (That is the right word, and we may credit Peter Wildeblood, Auberon Waugh, and Stanley Price.)

As far as the dictionary knows, I am the first person ever to use the word chaologist. I didn’t make it up. It was just something I’d heard. But I seem to be the first to have deployed it in print, when I wrote, in my 1987 book Chaos, ‘The chaoticists or chaologists (such coinages could be heard) turned up with disproportionate frequency on the yearly lists of important fellowships and prizes’.

If you’re aware of an earlier citation, please keep it to yourself.

Most of my quotations aren’t coinages or even unusual words. I’m amazed to find myself cited as an authority on the word dailies, which I first heard when I was lurking on a film set conducting research for my book Faster. And from The Information I am cited for paradox, sense 2c, ‘Logic. An argument, based on (apparently) acceptable premises and using (apparently) valid reasoning, which leads to a conclusion that is against sense, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory; the conclusion of such an argument’. Not a definition I could have provided myself.

When these words stream into my prose I’m seldom aware of them as anything unusual. So it’s a surprise that I end up in the OED, and a mystery. I asked Peter Gilliver, a longtime editor and historian of the dictionary whom I have interviewed in the past, how this works. He explained that there is a ‘reading programme’: researchers read books with an eye for useful quotations – ‘particularly clear illustrations of the meaning of a particular word.’ Quotations from the reading programme used to accumulate on paper slips, along with submissions from the public. Now they populate an electronic database, called ‘Incomings’.

‘Saying why a lexicographer chose to add a quotation of yours from Incomings isn’t easy’, Gilliver says. ‘If it was the earliest available quotation for something, it would of course have to go in; this is the case with chaologist. Sometimes it may illustrate that a word has broken out of its original specialist context and begun to be used in more general writing’.

One of the readers for my books, it turns out, was Michael Quinion, the etymologist and author who for many years ran the popular World Wide Words website. I asked him what he was looking for as an OED reader. What makes certain words, or certain usages, ring a bell?

He says he always sought out rare words, of course, and unusual senses or contexts, or unfamiliar parts of speech (‘a verbified noun or an adjective turned into an adverb, or whatever’ – dailies is an example, a nounified adjective). And he says, ‘I have also always liked to cite jargon because I’m a frustrated social historian.’ I suppose I have to admit that a certain amount of jargon finds its way into my books.

From Faster Quinion identified 62 ‘catchwords’ (OED jargon). ‘They include the unusual “unspeeded”, “chronometric”, “hypersomnolence”, “unjetlagged”, and “chronocyclegraph”’.  From the many catchwords that go into Incoming, the editors select only a few. I don’t remember what a chronocyclegraph is, but if the word ever makes it into the dictionary, I’m hoping for credit.

By the way, OED – you liked chaologist, so what’s wrong with chaoticist? My sole authority isn’t good enough for you?

Don’t answer that. I already know: no one’s sole authority qualifies a word for the dictionary. A solo, one-off, unique, unescorted, individual instance of a word does not pass muster. (In case you’re wondering, the first authority for one-off is a 1934 article in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen). The late Anthony Burgess complained peevishly that the sole authority of T. S. Eliot (Ara Vos Prec, 1920) had been enough to validate the word juvescence – ‘shameful (in my view)’, Burgess wrote. Burgess suspected Eliot had just misspelled juvenescence.

A word coined ‘for the nonce’ is called a nonce-word. It’s called that because James Murray, the ur-Editor himself, coined nonce-word in 1884. It caught on.

Wanting to get a word ‘into’ the OED is a thing. There ought to be a word for it. W. H. Auden admitted that he was eager to be an OED word coiner, and eventually he was. You can find his fingerprints on motted, metalogue, spitzy, and others. Burgess whinged about being left out. ‘I invented some years ago the word amation, for the art or act of making love, and still think it useful’, he wrote. ‘But I have to persuade others to use it in print before it is eligible for lexicographicizing (if that word exists)’. Nice try, Burgess. It does not. (See lexicalize.)

I once asked John Simpson, then Chief Editor, about Burgess and Eliot and juvescence. ‘Eliot didn’t actively “get the word juvescence in” the OED’, he told me. Simpson thought Eliot might have used the irregular version of the word deliberately ‘for reasons of rhythm, linguistic creativity, etc.’ Perhaps as the natural twin of senescence. Anyway Simpson pointed out that the dictionary has a second authority for juvescence: Stephen Spender (1948).

Of course, Spender might have got it from Eliot. That’s how these things go. I got chaologist from someone, somewhere, but it’s J. Gleick who gets the small-type credit in the OED.

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