Walking Word by Word: a poem for the OED’s 90th birthday

Walking Word by Word: a poem for the OED’s 90th birthday

As we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first completed edition, writer and editor Stan Carey has honoured the occasion with a spine poem, titled ‘Walking Word by Word’:

Walking Word by Word Stan Carey

Walking Word by Word

Caught in the web of words,
The loom of language,
The stuff of thought,
The story of writing –
a line made by
walking word by
word through the
language glass.

Stan Carey is a freelance editor and writer from the west of Ireland, and first published ‘Walking Word by Word’ on his blog, Sentence First. The poem is dedicated to the OED and to James Murray, the remarkable editor who led the first edition’s editorial staff for much of its creation.

Below, Stan shares with us his inspiration for writing spine poetry, how he created ‘Walking Word by Word’, and his enduring love for the English language – and the dictionaries that record it.

What inspired you to start writing spine poems? Had you ever written any poetry before?

I started making book spine poems in 2010 after seeing some by the artist Nina Katchadourian. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before: what a fun thing to do with your books! As a young lad I wrote bad existential and love poetry. Nowadays I mostly stick to haiku and nonsense verse.

Could you tell us how you created ‘Walking Word by Word’?

It was to be a poem about the OED in some way, but most of the books I have about the OED didn’t suit or had featured before. Caught in the Web of Words by K. M. Elisabeth Murray did suit, and the title is already poetic, so I took it off the shelf and browsed for a few more that continued the imagery. I played around with them till I was happy enough with the arrangement.

Have you always been interested in language?

As long as I can remember. I grew up learning Irish, French, and German, and thought about studying languages or literature in college. English was a source of endless wonder, especially the dialects I heard in rural Ireland. But I was into other stuff too, and I ended up studying biology. The focus shifted over the years until I began editing and learned about linguistics. That’s when words became a vocation and a career.

How have dictionaries influenced your life? What do dictionaries mean to you?

In childhood I was fascinated by dictionaries and had a pocket Collins that I thumbed to tatters. Later I chanced upon two usage dictionaries, one descriptive, one prescriptive, that sent me down a rabbit hole I’ve yet to leave. As a copy-editor I consult dictionaries daily, and for research I love delving into the great historical dictionaries like the OED, MWDEU, and Green’s Dictionary of Slang. The shift from print to digital has been interesting to watch, but I think there’s a place for both in any word-lover’s life.

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