The art of reading for the OED: Vivienne Painting

The art of reading for the OED: Vivienne Painting

In previous posts of this series on the art of reading for the OED, we have heard from Ruth Mateer, Joy Winnington, and John Healey on their work with the dictionary’s Reading Programmes.

In this next post, reader Vivienne Painting relates the joy of finding a ‘good’ quotation and the challenge of training her new words ‘antennae’:

Hello! I’m Vivienne Painting and have been working on the UK Reading Programme (UKRP) and the Historical Reading Programme (HRP).

I graduated from Swansea University in English and Philosophy then did an MA from there. My PhD was in history from Keele in 1997. Books and reading certainly suit!

It was in the early 1980s when I saw an article on the OED in The Daily Telegraph. Having always been interested in words and phrases this piqued my curiosity. Was it possible that I could contribute my mite? Quite out of character, for I am not usually so bold, I wrote expressing my interest and was overjoyed after doing a brief ‘test’, in which I needed to show how I coped with the reading, to be accepted on to the UKRP. Since then I have read books, magazines, and newspapers from many parts of the world dealing with numerous subjects.

In the early years, a list of titles of magazines was sent and I remember now the hilarity of ordering from my newsagent when I requested one on boxing then Mother and Baby interspersed with no-holds-barred men’s magazines. (Although men’s titles seemed more ‘useful’ than the female ones which were relatively staid and showing a limited vocabulary – but a necessary inoffensive one for its dedicated readers.) Deciding that OED needed an approach that ignored sensitivities I flung myself into the otherwise risqué titles and thoroughly enjoyed/enjoy them. There is a world of difference when such magazines prove productive; it lightens the feeling of it being ‘work’ and it is all attacked with a will.

In the 1990s I was cheeky again and asked if there was anything else I could do, alongside the UKRP. The HRP had been set up and I was given details on the finding of antedatings, postdatings, and so forth of words already in OED. I was in my element. My thesis had involved studying many texts from the eighteenth century and now I was back with old friends in familiar surroundings.

Sometimes, however, I was – still am! – asked to work on texts outside my ‘comfort zone’ (for example, those from the sixteenth century or those with a heavily scientific bent). These provided challenges but, over the years, it seems that ‘antennae’ alerted my eyes and my ‘OED brain’ to what was worthy of being followed through. For the UKRP the catchword needs to be well linked to what precedes it and what follows in order to try to give a good example of its sense – although this is not always possible.

Reading for the HRP is, I find, more intense than the UKRP. Words need to be assessed, virtually as one reads them. (I read a substantial part of the text first, making a list of those words I consider worth looking up in OED then, at another session, find these words, applying the sense to each ready for writing. This is the more intense section for it is the most important. Accuracy is vital.)

A favourite aspect of both programmes is the joy experienced when finding a ‘good’ quotation or an antedating. The feeling is virtually euphoric! By far the worst part if trying to add up the hours each text has taken to match the number of hours given. This just edges ahead of making out the invoice! A habit has now developed: when I am to start reading (even if for pleasure) I look at my watch ready to time myself!

Pleasure reading always includes looking at unusual words but when I’m on the historical reading and see quotations from centuries ago I do wonder about the people who said them. Not all were significant characters then but thanks to their words being recorded their names have been commemorated in a work alongside those of, perhaps, an upper class, and read on a global scale.

Read the next post in the series with North American Program reader Chuck Deodene.

OED 90 birthday logo

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.