Printing and publishing

As Word Stories looked at Caxton and the effect that his printing press had on English last week, I continued in a similar vein this week, by visiting the Oxford University Press Museum. It’s word nerd nirvana, the printing and publishing mother ship. There is a 19th century printing press, an original plate from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and dictionary entry slips handwritten by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aside from being a worldwidIMG_3295e publishing giant with an extensive history, the OUP is important to us language fans because of the
monumental Oxford English Dictionary. The first ever dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 but it was subjective and fairly informal and, as language evolves, soon out of date. When the first volume of the OED was published in 1884, it set a new standard for lexicography: it included everything from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, a thorough, detailed, historical record of English.

Of course the going wasn’t always easy. Five years into the proposed ten-year project, the first instalment was published. It covered all the words from a to ant.

James Murray, the editor at the time, refused to cut any corners and was determined to make it an entire, exhaustive study. He spent some 35 years working on the project but, sadly, died before it was completed. He had reached t.IMG_3257

The complete first edition was published in 1928 in ten volumes instead of the predicted four with around 400,000 words altogether. But of course, by now it had been 44 years since the first volume was published, which had become dated and needed revising. Since language is constantly changing, the dictionary needs to be continually edited.

Aside fIMG_3263rom the OED, some great word stories have also come from the OUP and the publishing world. The terms upper case and lower case for capitals and small letters respectively come from printing. The type is organised by letter in a large set of compartments, a case. The capital letters sit in the upper case while the small letters sit in the lower case.

The phrase to get the wrong end of the stick, meaning ‘to misunderstand’, comes from printing too. Printers held a stick and put the type in it, working from right to left. They had to put the letters in backwards as when they were printed, they would come out in reverse. However, if they got the wrong end of the stick, that is if they started placing the words from the left to the right, the text would come out back to front and no one would be able to understand.

While the typesetter ran out of type, or sorts, he couldn’t finish his job and had to wait until the new batch was IMG_3266delivered. Until that time, he was out of sorts, which now means ‘to feel low or irritable’.

One last noteworthy thing that’s on display in the OUP museum is the notice board of favourite words contributed by visitors. I had a painful realisation that even though I love words, I don’t know what my favourite one is. I feel it’s akin to choosing a favourite child. All the same, I think I need one. I ended up contributing superfluous, mostly because mellifluous had already gone, but I’ve thought of hundreds of great words since (monotonous, sojourn, perturb, albeit, fuddy-duddy, zest). So I put it to you reader, what is your favourite word? Pick a good one and I might even write about it.

Selfie

Every year, various budding new words battle it out to be celebrated as the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’. Only one lucky word will make the cut and this time the winner was announced to be the well-deserving selfie. Considering our tech-savvy lifestyles and passion for taking quick snaps and sharing them with ever more popular social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, it comes as no surprise that selfie should be the champion neologism.

The definition penned by the OED describes selfie as:

“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”

In order to qualify for nomination, the word need not have been conceived within the last year but it must have become prominent within that time and it also has to demonstrate the ‘inventiveness’ of English speakers in keeping up with social changes. Selfie certainly fits the bill: although the first example comes from 2002, according to the OED, usage increased by a phenomenal 17,000% in the last year.

Both selfy and selfie are found but the latter is generally more widespread. As Judy Pearsall, the OED‘s editorial director, explained to the Guardian, “[t]he use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing”. It is also suspected that the linguistic craze originated in Australia, partly because the first documented example comes from an Australian online forum, partly because of this suffix variant which is more popular in Oz.

Despite selfie being the ‘it’ word of the moment, its root word self has been around far longer than the English language or even our Germanic ancestors. Linguists suspect that the term derives from Proto-Indo-European, a language that was around some 6,000 years ago, in the form *sel-bho. So even though the selfie might be a slightly narcissistic craze, we are essentially slightly narcissistic creatures since it seems that as much as we like taking photos of ourselves now, we’ve always quite enjoyed talking about ourselves too.

Other nominees that didn’t quite make it include: olinguito, binge-watch, twerk and schmeat. But it’s the past winners that are a really interesting look into how our language and society have changed over the recent years.

2012 – omnishambles

2011 – squeezed middle

2010 – big society

2009 – simples

2008 – credit crunch

2007 – carbon footprint

2006 – bovvered

2005 – sudoku

2004 – chav