Drinking the OED
I lose some days to the dictionary. On these blessed, dangerous days, I wake up late, and, post coffee and breakfast burrito, feel ready to brawl with hippopotamuses. And I do, of sorts, almost inevitably.
I start with the best intentions: to write, to read, to think the big thoughts, or at least grade a few student papers. But, as I am handling words, it’s only a matter of time before one of those bundles of squiggles and dots sends me into the Oxford English Dictionary, which is to say, into the wildwood of speech, with its petrified, dead words and its sapling-green ones, its centuries-long grime of connotations, forking etymologies, and amputated, lost meanings. I never stop at just one word. One doesn’t lead to two; it leads to them all.
Here, in the thousand-year forest, there be monsters, and they come in three primary flavors: the mouthfilling, Latinate behemoths; the chivalric nightmares of Norman ancestry that, once deboned, go down gooey and silky; and the Anglo-Saxon, consonant-fat beasts that feel as solid on the tongue as an old coin. Such abundant game boggles even a coffee-fortified brain. After a few hours of reading the dictionary, I start to feel word-drunk. My tongue goes clumsy. But beyond the sheer lexical profusion, one thing really wallops: usage illustrations, the more vintage the better.
A windfucker is a kestrel, which is a bit of letdown at first, and then really grows on you. (Why don’t we have vulgar names for all the birds?) And, unsurprisingly, the word is also used, as the OED tactfully puts it, “as a term of opprobrium.” Swish about and savor this 1602 quotation: “I tell you, my little windfuckers, had not a certaine melancholye ingendred with a nippinge dolour overshadowed the sunne shine of my mirthe, I had beene I pre, sequor, one of your consorte.” I have never read a more thrilling excuse. And to think I only say to my friends, “I don’t feel like going out tonight.”
Consider swag. It makes a fine noun, but swag comes into its own as a verb. The OED defines the word as “Criminals’ slang” (see cant, argot, and Thieves’ Latin) for “to push (a person) forcefully, to shove; to take or snatch away roughly.” Forget William Blake’s “Hungry clouds swag [as in sway] on the deep”; the following is swag poetry at its best: “So when we got swagged into the meatwagon I asked another geezer the strength of him, and the strength was that he’d got nicked for ponceing.” Swagged into the meatwagon (i.e. paddy wagon, ambulance, or hearse): I could say that all day.
The OED proves a heady rumfustian, a recipe for which the omnivorous dictionary includes: “a quart of strong beer, a bottle of wine or sherry, half a pint of gin, the yolk of twelve eggs, orange peel, nutmeg, spices, and sugar.” The dictionary’s stylistic sweep—the rocket jumps and plummets in register, zigzagging from an elevated windfucker to an underworld swag—gets me shickered to the eyeballs—drunk, I mean—because it’s all there, in the lexicon: a bright distillation of language, learning, and folly. If you could grasp it, you’d hold the whole known world.
Eventually, I emerge out of this ether-dark only to find that I’ve scribbled things I cannot quite understand. Confusion’s the price you pay to plumb the wordhoard. Not a bad tradeoff for a bit of time travel. For, ah, my little windfuckers, when I open up the OED the past bops me on the head so hard it swags me straight into the meatwagon.