Two reviews of The Life of Words

It has been almost two years since I published The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry, and even longer since I stopped working on it. A couple of reviews have come out, one just the other day. They’re by Barry Wallenstein (in Choice) and Stephanie Burt (in Modern Philology).

The latter is free to read without any special credentials: follow the link here. What I like and admire about Burt’s review is how it handles so charitably what Burt clearly was left wanting. When I started the project, almost fifteen years ago, I had in mind a book that would set out terms for further work. And as I was coming to the end, I was conscious of large swathes I was leaving unmown beyond the hill (or Hill). I’m grateful Burt saw it that way as well and said so, when she might easily have taken it–or presented it–as ignorant or pernicious. Academics, after all, tend to prioritize their own curiosities, practices, pathways, and tendencies over those of them they read, and attribute all sorts of deficiency to the gap between.

Here are some excerpts: Read More


Christmas Dinner

O, how I have complained over “DINNER” in the Oxford English Dictionary [see “Oxford English Dinner“]. The close of 2021 brought an early Christmas surprise: a new, fully revised entry. And it’s not just any revision, but one of those with an extended lexicological and sociohistorical note. The first main definition now says: 1. Originally: […]


Nae Mair for the Nonce?

Growlsome, guzzledom, panfrivolium – Oxford English Dictionary #OED doing away with “nonce-words” | Nae Mair for the Nonce? | The Life of Words


OED “Transgender” Update Update

In my last post [“Why we need a Variorum OED: ‘Transgender’ ” 9/12/2020], I pointed to the OED entry for TRANSGENDER as it appeared in December 2020 as a good example of the need for a Variorum OED, which would label all elements (etymologies, definitions, quotations) with their individual revision histories. Well, in the last […]


Why We Need a Variorum OED: “Transgender”

The need for a Variorum–i.e. a detailed revision history for every published element of the OED since 1884–is becoming even more acute.


Published: “Alien” vs. Editor: “World English” in the OED 1884-2020

This article discusses the changing ways in which the Oxford English Dictionary has recorded the vocabularies of ‘World English’ from the beginnings to the present day.


Seamus Heaney on Dictionaries

In the summer of 2012 Seamus Heaney wrote to me on some questions I had sent him about dictionaries and words and etymologies. Bits of what he had to say made it into a couple of talks I did around that time, but I recently rediscovered the original text, and thought it should see the […]


From “Awesomesauce” to “Unlike, v.”: Twitter and the OED

Twitter is emerging as a major source of quotation evidence for the Oxford English Dictionary. In the revisions and additions made to OED3 in 2018, it was the seventh most cited source. In 2019, it was the second most cited source, with 501 quotations, rivaling the Times (of London), with 560, and clobbering the Times […]


A Variorum OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a notoriously patchy text, having been written and re-written over a span of 130 years or so. In a recent post I put together a graphic representation of this, coloring bits from different editions, additional series and supplements. But even an up-to-date, revised entry in OED3 is a patchwork, combining […]


Fulsome Recovery

The 1989 Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that you’re wrong if your think fulsome means the same as full. If you give a ‘fulsome answer’ to some question (as I’ve noticed many people do), it will tell you that your answer is ‘disgusting, repulsive, odious’, ‘Offensive to good taste’ and ‘gross […]