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Linguinflation

January 31, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

I adore the Oxford English Dictionary. The definitions, derivations and etymology make for endlessly fascinating reading – not just the definitions but also the citations illustrating how words were used and evolved across the centuries.

Every morning an email lands in my inbox with the OED Word of the Day. Today’s word is hipparchy, a noun derived from ancient Greece, which is defined as “a unit of cavalry consisting of 512 horses and their riders.”  The commander of this military unit is a hipparch.

Yesterday’s word was paralogism, a noun defined as “a piece of false or erroneous reasoning, esp. one which the reasoner is unconscious of or believes to be logical (as distinct from a sophism, which is intended to deceive); an illogical argument, a fallacy.” The earliest cited reference was from 1565.

My OEMWOTD message today also informs me that the editors have added 550 new words to the dictionary during the last three months. At this rate, that would amount to about 2,500 new words per year – on top of the 600,000+ words already listed in that magnificent edifice, the second edition of which, completed in 1989, fills 22,000 pages bound in 20 heavy volumes. Happily, it’s also offered electronically.

Among the new words added this quarter you’ll find:

Awedde, adj.: “Overcome with anger, madness or distress; insane, mentally disturbed.”

Chickee, n.: “In the south-eastern United States, especially Florida: a type of open-sided dwelling consisting of palmetto thatching on a log frame with a raised floor, traditionally built by the Seminole people.”

Farkakte, adj.: “Covered in excrement, rare.”

Mentionitis, n.: “Originally a tendency to mention something for the sake of comprehensiveness or exhaustiveness, rather than relevance (now rare). In later use: a tendency towards repeatedly or habitually mentioning something, esp. the name of a person one is attracted to or infatuated with, regardless of its relevance to the topic of conversation.”

Onboarding, n.: “Business. The action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization team, etc. Frequently as a modifier, as in onboarding process …”

This last one makes my skin crawl.

You may be interested to learn that the father of the Oxford English Dictionary was a Scottish lexicographer named Sir James A. H. Murray (pictured above), who was commissioned by the Philological Society of London to serve as editor for the project in 1879.

The work was expected to be completed in 10 years, but it was still incomplete when Murray died in 1915, and the first edition was not published until 1928.

For this massive task he enlisted the help of his 11 children, as well as a string of philologists and language scholars around the world.

The most important of his collaborators was W.C. Minor, one of those improbable and fascinating figures who pop up in in histories of the Victorian era. Born in India in 1834, he was the son of New England missionaries. He attended Yale Medical School and served as a surgeon in the Union Army. Following the war, he led a dissolute life in New York City’s red-light district. His mental condition deteriorated (syphilis induced, perhaps), and he landed in a lunatic asylum in Washington, D.C. He later traveled to London, where he shot a man to death but was found not-guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to the Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane. He suffered terrifying delusions, one of which was that invaders entered his room at night and kidnapped him to Constantinople where they forced him to have sex with young boys. In his agonizing despair and guilt, he mutilated himself with a sharpened penknife. He eventually returned to the United States, where he died in a geriatric mental hospital in 1920.

But Dr. Minor was more than just a paranoid schizophrenic. He was also a voracious reader and compulsive indexer. While residing in Broadmoor he acquired a massive library of antiquarian books, from which he compiled, indexed and shared with James Murray many thousands of obscure quotations documenting the usage of words and phrases. His productivity and attention to detail was astounding. During the 1890s he was said to have mailed the editor as many as 20 quotations a day.

If you’d like to learn more, I refer you to The Professor and the Madman, written by Simon Winchester and published in 1996. If you prefer film to books, you might try the recent movie of the same name starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.