Judy’s Bookshelf and the OED

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April 3, 2021 by libroshombre

            Where the heck is Judy Woodruff’s copy of “Grant,” Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of the 18th President?  I remain a charter member of the Walter Cronkite  fan club and freely confess my longstanding crush on Ms. Woodruff, the anchorwoman and managing editor of PBS “News Hour.”  I’m not alone; as Jeannie Ralston described her in “Judy Woodruff: The Calming, Thoughtful TV Presence We’ve Needed This Past Year,” “She is serious, but elegant. She is smart but doesn’t need to prove it to guests or viewers. She’s polite but will press a guest if she’s not getting an answer. Her slight bone structure suggests fragility; the way she asks her questions suggests anything but. Unlike so many newscasters, she is not prone to hyperbole and drama, and God knows we didn’t need any more of that this year.”

            Woodruff’s reporting reminds me of the trustworthy, knowledgeable, and compassionate Cronkite, and I tune her in regularly.  A librarian can’t help but notice and appreciate the full bookshelves visible behind Ms. Woodruff’s visage, particularly “Grant,” which also resides on this viewer’s bookshelf, alongside a first edition of “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant,” (which is widely considered the best presidential writing ever).  However, “Grant” wasn’t to be seen on Woodruff’s well-stocked shelves last week and remains AWOL.  Is she re-reading it?  Has a major sponsor from the South complained?  

Inquiring minds want to know.  As “The No Charge Book Bunch” blogger posted, “sometimes I am more fascinated with the books on the shelf behind Judy Woodruff than the news she presents.  Ron Chernow’s Grant has a special place on her shelf, and it is conveniently positioned sideways – easy to read the title.”  The “No Charge” blogger stalks other celebrity’s online bookshelves, as well, but she trod upon dangerous ground when she continued, “Hollywood icons reveal themselves when being interviewed, but look at the books behind them to get the real picture.  Actress Kate (sic) Blanchett’s 20 volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary makes me wonder if she has an inordinate love of language, a need to factcheck her words, or just the tendency to pack her shelves with neutral fare.”  I’m not here to defend Ms. Blanchard’s honor or décor, but don’t go knocking the OED using the “inordinate” word on my watch.  The OED is “neutral fare”?  Forsooth!

Access to the OED, the Mother of All English Language Dictionaries, is a very good thing and even boosts star status (even used, the 20-volume oversized work costs upwards of $1,000).  Another is that in nearly every respect it reigns supreme among English dictionaries (it’s not illustrated, like my beloved American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary).  Moreover, it’s the top authority on where our words’ origins and meanings over time, including examples of how they’ve been used.  It’s price is too rich for my blood, especially since I can call the public library and get them to look in their OED.  However, I do own the two-volume “Compact OED” in which each page contains four of the regular-sized OED’s pages shrunk by 75 percent (it comes with a magnifying glass).  Since the library was closed last night, I used it to look up “inordinate.”

Yes, I could have looked it up online using Onelook.com, which includes the Oxford Dictionaries among 1,000 others.  But not all Oxfords are alike in scope or quality, and the online version is a bare, stripped down scrap by comparison.  The OxfordDictionaries.com definition for “inordinate” is “unusually disproportionately large, excessive.  The OED’s first usage of “inordinate” (in 1398) is “devoid of order or regularity,” then “not within orderly limits.”  It goes on for several hundred words, but you get the idea.  There are other big dictionaries, but nothing comparable, and when some lexicographers (word experts) wanted to know what word in our language is most popular, they turned to the OED. 

Simon Winchester literally wrote the book on the OED, “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” and a decade ago he wrote a NYTimes.com opinion piece, “A Verb for Our Frantic Times,” about how the OED determines the most popular word.  He begins with this paragraph: “Her birthday: must set plans in motion. Run a bath, put on cologne, set the table. High anxiety. Run down list: set watch again, put water in glasses, set flowers. Run to the window — phew! Watch her put a finger to the doorbell. Such joy! What timing! And just as the sun sets, too!”  Winchester continued, scattered within the vocabulary of this 54-word drama are 11 uses of the three most complex verbs in the English language: ‘set, ‘put,’ and ‘run.’” 

The OED staff determines a word’s popularity by measuring the number of its meanings, or senses, and the numbers of columns of type each entry requires.  “In the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928,” he wrote, “that ‘richest-of-all-words’ was ‘set’ (75 columns of type, some 200 senses), the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word ‘run’ … It took Peter Gilliver, the O.E.D. lexicographer working on the letter R, more than nine months (plus many more months of preparatory research) to work out what he believes are all the meanings of ‘run.’”  It can be a noun (“score a run”) or adjective (“runny nose”), but as a verb alone “run” has at least 645 meanings, which is the record.  Today “set” can only muster 450 meanings.

The OED lexicographers think the decline of “set” in the 20th century was due to the rise of the verb “put,” (as in “put that bucket of fried chicken over here”).  Meanwhile, Winchester suggests, “run has exploded with the increase in the number of machines and computers: a train runs on tracks, a car runs on gas, an iPad runs apps. But simultaneously, there have also been countless revivals of antique non-mechanical senses: you now run out on someone, you run something past someone. Old “runs” are, in other words, generating new meanings, a demonstration of the living nature of the language.”

While I had my OED and magnifying glass out, I looked for “shieling,” an interesting obscure Scottish term some good friends had encountered and passed along that they said means, “the dwelling where farmers would live from June to September while pasturing their animals in high country.”  I’m delighted to report that the OED confirmed they were very close: a “shiel” is “a temporary building usually built of boards; a shepherd’s hut,” and a “shieling” is “a piece of pasture to which cattle may be driven,” and “also a piece of pasture ground having a shepherd’s hut on it.” And, as Uncle Walt assured us every evening, “that’s the way it is”

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