Winnie-the-Pooh in the Oxford English Dictionary

Winnie-the-Pooh in the Oxford English Dictionary

The publication of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928 coincided with that of The House at Pooh Corner, the sequel to Winnie-the-Pooh which had appeared two years earlier. The character of Winnie-the-Pooh, however, made his first appearance in the collection of poems entitled When We Were Very Young, published in 1924. Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends make several appearances in the OED; the latest update has introduced several new entries drawn from A.A. Milne’s delightful stories.

Eeyore, whose name reflects a childish representation of the donkey’s bray, gets an entry all of his own–’a pessimistic, gloomy, or habitually disconsolate person’–which would no doubt give him no satisfaction whatsoever. Heffalump also appears in the OED, defined as ‘a child’s word for elephant’, with quotations from both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner: ‘He guessed what had happened. He and Piglet had fallen into a Heffalump Trap for Poohs’. The association of these creatures with elephants is not made in the story itself, however; it is only apparent from an accompanying illustration, supplied by E.H. Shepard. As the story of the Heffalump trap demonstrates only too clearly–the trap in which Pooh and Piglet are caught is one they themselves dug to catch heffalumps–Pooh is a bear of little brain, another entry that has now been added to the OED. Defined as ‘a person of little intelligence’, this phrase is generally used self-deprecatingly, as it is by Pooh bear himself: ‘I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me’. Pooh’s antipathy to long words is part of what draws him to his friend Rabbit, who uses ‘short, easy words, like “What about lunch?” and “Help yourself, Pooh”‘.

Another of the dangerous creatures reputed to stalk the Hundred Acre Wood is the woozle; although, having spent some time on its trail, Pooh and Piglet discover that they are walking in a circle and following their own footsteps – a realisation that leads Pooh to declare: ‘I am a Bear of No Brain at All’. Appropriately, the mythical woozle does not feature in the OED, but its name lives on in the Woozle effect: a deliberate attempt to mislead by frequent citation of publications lacking evidential support – a useful term for the era of fake news and alternative facts.

The OED does, however, include an entry for Pooh-sticks, a game in which each player drops a stick over one side of a bridge, the winner being the person whose stick is first to reappear on the other side. The global popularity of the game is apparent from a citation included in the entry drawn from The Independent newspaper in 2004: ‘At the 21st annual Pooh-sticks race in Wittenham, Oxfordshire, the Czech Republic won the team gold medal’. During one game of Pooh-sticks Eeyore floats helplessly past, having been bounced into the river by Tigger–entries for Tigger, Tiggerish, and Tigger-like are all being included in the latest update, describing those who share Tigger’s irrepressible energy and enthusiasm, often with disastrous consequences for those around them. By dropping a large stone into the river, Pooh succeeds in ‘hooshing’ him to the shore, only to find the ungrateful Eeyore disputing the rescue, as captured in the OED entry for hoosh: ‘Hooshing me? You didn’t think I was hooshed, did you?… I dived and swam to the bank’.

Since Pooh is best known for his love of honey, it is particularly apt that he should be cited in its OED entry–’He sat down and took the top off his jar of honey’–while Pooh’s fondness for a little something for elevenses also appears in the relevant section of the OED: ‘Now then, Pooh, time for a little something’. Yet perhaps most fitting of all is the quotation that appears in the entry for bear, ‘a child’s toy’: ‘In that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing’–encapsulating the way the Pooh bear stories live on in the imagination, and in their gifts to the English language.

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