Thursday, September 28, 2006

Until the End of Everything

This will be my last post about the Oxford English Dictionary, I promise! I know you're sick to death of it. But as I was reading Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, there were four places where I was so struck by a quote that I left a placemark there. These aren't Winchester's words, but where he was quoting someone else:

The first quote is from William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England, and produced the first printed books in the English language. This is from an advertising flyer that he circulated:
If it plese ony man... to bye... [books]... late hym come to Westmonester... and he shal have them good chepe. [If it please any man to buy books, let him come to Westminster, and he shall have them good and cheap.]
It may be hard for us to remember when we're shelling out twenty bucks for the latest Harry Potter, but if Man is the Maker of Tools, there are few that have so profoundly changed the course of humanity as the printing press, ushering in the era of knowledge available for "good chepe."

The remaining three quotes are all from the Dictionary's great Editor, James Murray. The first is from a letter he wrote to Lord Bryce in 1903:
I think it was God's will.... I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it were imposed upon me -- not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science & many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that in my opinion the Dictionary would likely have come to disaster if not for Murray's unique talents. He seems to have felt something of the same.

The second Murray quote is from his Introduction to the Dictionary:
The circle of the English language has a well-defined centre, but no discernable circumference.
This captures in a simple phrase one of the reasons that I love this language.

The final quote is a personal wish from a letter Murray wrote to Fitzedward Hall, one of the most dedicated of the thousands of volunteers who contributed to the OED:
May you live to see Zymotic
Zymotic is, of course, the final word in the English language, and if the OED can be said to be the meaning of everything, then it follows that Zymotic is, in fact, the end of everything. And if Star Trek fans can bid each other farewell with, "Live long and prosper," why can't lexicographers -- or anyone who loves the language -- bid farewell with this simple wish, May you live to see Zymotic, until the end of all things.

So this is my sincere wish for you, my five readers (I'm pretty sure there are five of you now), and also to little Evelyn Grace and Valerie Marta:

May you live to see Zymotic.

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