Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 8, 2013

140 pounds of words

Husband Art and I are both curious souls. Often when we are in the middle of a discussion, one of us will suddenly say something like, "I wonder where that word comes from."

A recent example stemmed from our trip to Wisconsin over the holidays. While there, we mostly ate, read, watched TV, slept late, shopped and talked with friends and relatives. When we returned home and people asked what we did, I said we mostly "lollygagged." It's an old-fashioned word, but the smiles I received seemed to say most people knew what I meant.

Still, I wondered about what the dictionary could tell me about the word. I consulted the online Oxford Dictionaries - which claim to be "the world's most trusted dictionaries." The definition of lollygag (also listed as lallygag) was the following:

"Spend time aimlessly; idle: she goes to Arizona every January to lollygag in the sun... dawdle: we're lollygagging along."

Yep, that's definitely what we did in Wisconsin. It went on to indicate that it is an Americanism that dates back to the mid-19th century, but its origin is uncertain.

Our curiosity frequently extends to such things as wanting to know how countries or cities or rivers got their names. Art recently wanted to know whether Brazil nuts got their name from the country or the other way around. He discovered that "Brazil" comes from brazilwood, a species of tree that once grew plentifully along the Brazilian coast. In Portuguese, brazilwood is called pau-brasil and brasil comes from the Latin "brasa," meaning "ember." Because brazilwood produces a deep red dye - hence, resembling red embers - it was highly valued by the European cloth industry. So the country was named for the tree!

While on this tangent, Art also discovered that Bolivia produces more Brazil nuts than Brazil does.

It seems that hardly a day goes by without one of us contemplating the meaning or origin of some word and then looking it up. So our ears perked up when we heard last Friday's "Writer's Almanac" on Kansas Public Radio. On that segment, Host Garrison Keillor spoke about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary. He said that it was on Feb. 1, 1884 that the first part of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was published. It covered from "A" to "Ant."

"The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea of a new dictionary in 1857, almost 30 years earlier," Keillor said, "and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were 'incomplete and deficient,' and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times."

Keillor said the society's members thought the dictionary would take 10 years to complete and would fill four volumes. But instead, the first edition took 70 years and filled 10 volumes. The last volume of the first edition was published in 1928. The complete work defined more than 400,000 words and used nearly 1.9 million quotations.

In 1989, the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Its 21,730 pages fill 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. It includes more than 615,000 definitions and more than 2.4 million quotations.

According to Keillor, the word "set" in its verb form, has the longest entry. The editors identified more than 430 ways it is used and the entry is 60,000 words long - "the equivalent of a modestly-sized novel."

The online version has been available since 2000, and, as of August 2010, was receiving two million hits per month from paying subscribers. For individuals, the fee is $29.95 per month or $295 per year.

We're curious, but maybe not THAT curious! But lucky for Art and me, there are plenty of free online dictionaries - dictionaries where all you have to do is put up with advertising. But what a small price to pay to learn such things as the word "marshmallow" originally came from a mallow plant that grew in wet lands and when its root was boiled, it became spongy.

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