Saturday, January 21, 2006

A to Abalone

My Collins English Dictionary is old and cranky: some 1791 pages, a 1992 vintage, weather beaten and shorn of its cover from a decade and more of constant use. Page 1 takes me from A to Abalone. I think of this as I read The Meaning of Everything the story of the 68 year making of the original Oxford English Dictionary, the last part of which was published in 1928. Simon Winchester’s tale entertainingly talks about the major contributors James Murray, Henry Bradley, Chevenix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivell and others. They all contributed to this colossal encyclopaedic compendium of the history of the English language. In my own slimline CED page 1 we see several ‘a’s (roads, musical notes, area, chemical mass numbers & blood types among others) onto the ‘aa’ which is a Hawaiian volcanic rock. The aardvark and aardwolf are wonderfully present as they were in the OED despite the wolfish howls of protest from editors who thought the words weren’t English. The abacus traces back to the Hebrew word for dust (‘abhaj’) and unto dust it will surely return. We have cities in Switzerland, Denmark and Iran (Aarau, Aarhus and Abidan), we have bibles and devils (Aaron and Abaddon) and the abalone is also called an ear shell and is an 19th century word of unknown American Spanish origin.

Fair Game
Why are crystal balls so dirty?
They get so little business
in their shabby tents
there’s no future in it
there’s no furniture in it
in this land of magical ikeas

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