“Marriage is a great institution” said the legendary Mae West, “but I’m not ready for an institution.”
I wasn’t either, when given the complete Oxford English Dictionary by my then-boyfriend, twenty-two years back. Of course “nice girls” in the 20th Century weren’t supposed to accept expensive gifts from men, because the men might expect something more. But this was the world’s greatest dictionary ferheavinsakes! Besides, in my case what was expected was marriage which, I am pleased to say, took place a few months later, after I was able to get my head out of the OED for a few hours to trundle up to Yosemite Valley and repeat my vows in four feet of snow behind the Awahnee Hotel (“Marriage”, Volume VI, pg. 180).
But, as they say, I digress. Because do have respect for institutions, especially the one the OED came out of—a mental institution. That’s exactly where the 19th Century Oxford lexicographer Professor James Murray, who had issued a call for volunteers to assemble this compendium of the English language, finally found amateur etymologist Dr. W.C. Minor, the fellow who had been, for many years, supplying him with a vast number of words and definitions. Not that the appearance of a mental facility connected with English would surprise any poor person attempting to learn it as a second language. With over 950,00 words and counting (somebody’s counting, surely) trying to keep up with English could indeed send someone straight to the nuthouse. Fortunately for Dr. Minor, he was already there, where he could revel in the strange world of the world’s largest language unmolested.
Now we hear the 112-pound, sixteen-volume real-life set of the OED is about to become history, replaced by OED3, an online subscription version. Is this any way to treat an institution? Even Ms. West might agree. Me, I’ll stick with my big, dog-eared volumes, each so hefty I must keep, and use, the set on the floor of my garret. You know, that place where crazy writers work.