‘There remains something extraordinary’: David Whitley on the OED

‘There remains something extraordinary’: David Whitley on the OED

Tony Harrison begins his major poem ‘V’ with a quote from the 1980s leader of the Miners’ Union, Arthur Scargill. Scargill says that his father “still reads the dictionary every day” because he feels that “your life depends on your power to master words”. I thought about this in the context of this year’s 90th anniversary celebrations for the first publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, wondering about how I value the dictionary (or perhaps ‘The Dictionary’?), and whether people’s relationship with the kinds of knowledge dictionaries hold for us has changed substantially since the tough times of the miners’ strike in the 1980s? I guess Scargill’s father’s words contain a fundamental truth that probably hasn’t changed that much, either since the 1980s nor, indeed, since the 1920s when the OED was first published. The range of words that one can call upon fluently and accurately is still both empowering and enriching: in that sense, your life really does depend upon your power to master words, and the dictionary remains a major resource, extending the reach and accuracy of the detail and nuances that underpin that power.

In our digital age, though, when you can call up any number of dictionaries and explanatory tools almost instantly, at the tap of a button, I wonder how much we continue to value that resource? And, if the quality of your life really does depend upon it, does it matter which dictionary you go to as your default option, or indeed which option Google virtually chooses for you? In this respect, there remains something extraordinary about the kind of resource that the OED still offers distinctively, if you are lucky enough to have relatively easy access to it. Again, I’ve thought about this quite a lot over the past few years because I’ve been involved (and what a privilege that has been) with a wonderful recitation event for schools called Poetry By Heart. The event has been run by Julie Blake and Tim Shortis, but has also been generously supported by the OED who have enabled the dictionary’s resources to be freely accessed by everyone engaged in Poetry By Heart. The way it has worked is this. Poetry By Heart have developed a dedicated anthology of about 200 poems suitable for memorising and reciting. The poems are accompanied by a range of contextualising resources that includes selected key words with direct links to the relevant entries in the OED. This opens up unexpected connections in engaging with the poems, as well as a more multi-layered appreciation of the power inherent to the words themselves.

To give you just one example, the anthology includes Seamus Heaney’s elegy to the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who was killed during the 1st World War. Amongst the half dozen or so words in the poem singled out for special attention with direct links to the OED (and including one of my favourite of all English words ‘hunkering’!), the initially unremarkable ‘countrified’ is earmarked in the following stanza:

Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane.

Without its special highlighting (and perhaps the subtle rhyming with ‘seaside’?), most people would probably read over the word ‘countrified’ as part of a sequence of qualities not unexpected of a rural poet seen out on a date in leafy lanes. But, if you take the detour into the OED entry for ‘countrified’, you find not only the denotative sense of the word, its etymology, etc.: you also have around 20 instances of the contexts within which ‘countrified’ has been deployed down the ages, from the first instance the OED researchers have been able to trace in 1653 through to 2012. And what then comes into focus is just how deeply ‘countrified’ captures something which is not just an affiliation and a quality, but also a value judgement. ‘Countrified’, it becomes clear, is a way of marking the territory of our complex identities: our positioning between sophistication and simplicity, agricultural roots and urbanity, nature and culture, with all the variant nuances of those terms in active engagement with each other. In short, you understand why Francis Ledwidge means so much to a poet like Seamus Heaney, who takes the ambivalent value markers caught up in a word like ‘countrified’ as a ground for his own identity as a poet. The layered historical consciousness of this word that the OED’s scholarship makes available also makes one think more deeply about what meaning our connection to ‘country’ still has for us, and to what extent we’ve become more detached from aspects of this. So, thank you, OED, in your 90th year, for continuing to make us look beneath what initially seems commonplace in words and for sparking such a range of thoughts and feelings.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.