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Wordsleuth (2005, volume 2, 3): The Words of Our Lives

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 2, Number 3, 2005, page 27)

Have you ever found the need to complain about excessive fruit cakyness? Probably not, and if you had, you wouldn’t have found any help in the usually ever-so-helpful Canadian Oxford Dictionary if you were unsure how to spell it. Fruit cakyness, along with such classics as gentlephantom, glarigenous, grutnol, frugiferous, frowst and gandershanks, among many others, are all words used by Robertson Davies somewhere in his writing, and noted by our lexicographers during their reading for the dictionary, but didn’t make the cut for the dictionary. A reading program is the underpinning for any serious dictionary project. I like to say that alas little elves do not come to me in the night and whisper in my ear what new words are being created and what Canadianisms are out there deserving entry in a dictionary. In our ongoing reading for all the dictionaries in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary range, we have now read over 9,000 Canadian books, newspapers and magazines, including, of course, the works of Robertson Davies, and taken over 140,000 quotations from them.

So why aren’t Davies’s words in the dictionary? Isn’t a dictionary’s purpose to record the words used in the greatest literature? And shouldn’t a Canadian dictionary include all the words used by a great Canadian writer like the revered Robertson?

Well, actually, no. The dictionary’s purpose is to record the words that are used typically by users of the language. Writers like Robertson Davies delight in playing with the language, inventing their own new words or resurrecting obscure and archaic ones. We are more interested in everyday language; we would never have room to include all the one-off inventions. For this reason, I have often said that Eric Lindros’s autobiography was a more productive source of vocabulary for the dictionary than Robertson Davies’s writing (though this should in no way be interpreted as a comment on their respective literary merits!). Even the Canadian Tire catalogue and grocery store flyers have passed under our highlighter pens, and they too have contributed useful vocabulary of our everyday lives. Indeed we have what we like to call the "Loblaws Law of Lexicography," to wit: if you start seeing a word (usually a food term) in your local grocery store, it should really be considered for inclusion in the dictionary.

All this Canadian reading has benefited not just the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, but also the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary, the historical record of the English language, which is currently under revision in Oxford. It is very exciting for the lexicographers working on our Canadian dictionary projects to see the fruits of our reading labours turn up in the revised entries. So I thought I’d let you peek at some of the more entertaining Canadian content in the new OED.

Our pal Eric Lindros appears twice as an author (Davies, it must be said, is quoted over 170 times). Eric is immortalized with the elegant sentence "He tries to blow it off and pretend it doesn’t matter," to illustrate the phrasal verb blow off, and the somewhat prosaic "He was wearing one of those hospital scrub suits with a drawstring on the bottoms," to illustrate the pants sense of bottoms. He also turns up in a quotation to illustrate the word man-mountain.

The entry for stuck has two quotations to illustrate the phrase like a stuck pig. The first is from Benjamin Disraeli, followed immediately by one from Guy Vanderhaeghe.

It was very considerate, from a Canadian point of view, for OED lexicographers to start revision with the letter M, thus allowing for the rapid inclusion of maple leaf. Speaking of our national tree, I never thought the sight of a Manitoba maple would give me pleasure, seeing as I usually have to spend the Canada Day weekend unpatriotically ripping seedlings of this notoriously weedy tree out of my garden. But I would never want to see the Manitoba maple uprooted from its rightful place in the OED.

Indeed the letter M has given us our favourite "Canadian content OED entry": the entry for magnificent, where we find a sense 2a, "Of a person, personal attribute, etc.: characterized by greatness of achievement or by conduct befitting high position. Now only in the Magnificent… , used… in titles to designate a particular distinguished ruler or (colloq.) any other distinguished person."

The examples start in 1513 with a quotation from Thomas More. Then from 1795 all the examples refer to Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) until 1990 where we get the quotation "They see in Mike Ricci the potential to be better than Steve Yzerman, maybe in the same league as The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, or Mario the Magnificent." The quotation is from a book I read about junior hockey, The Making of Champions.

From Lorenzo de Medici to Mario Lemieux, from Thomas More to Canadian hockey in one easy step. Only in the Oxford English Dictionary!

But sometimes our quotations could be misleading to the innocent lexicographer in Oxford. Take, for example, this quotation from the Goderich Signal-Star: "Sue outjumped everyone at the track and field meet in Tillsonburg last week, winning the gold in the Midget Girls high jump event." Do Canadians have a bizarre penchant for making very short people engage in sports more suited for the beanpoles of this world? A check in the quotation file shows that we have midget basketball as well! So when we sent these quotations along to Oxford we added a note to the effect that we are not sadistic: "midget" is merely a Canadianism designating a level of amateur sport typically involving players aged 16 or 17.

I must admit I have resorted to other more unorthodox methods of getting Canadianisms into the OED. There was the day in Oxford when I left a classic 4" x 6" OED dictionary slip with the catchword matrimonial cake on a table in the coffee room at the OED’s offices. The slip, however, came not with the customary quotation but rather with the dessert known in most of Canada as date squares. It was apparently not unappreciated by the OED lexicographers, who perhaps were too busy eating to complain about the lack of proper supporting quotation evidence. The dessert has acquired this matrimonial moniker in Western Canada (where I grew up), for reasons that even the OED has alas been unable to determine. For my efforts were successful, and matrimonial cake is one of the new Canadian entries that have appeared in OED online. The expression is now properly exemplified by quotations, the sources being a 1944 Canadian cookbook unearthed by our Canadian library researcher, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women and the Hamilton Spectator.

However, I can’t keep rushing over to Oxford and baking (although I did also one day whip up some Nanaimo bars for my British colleagues)! Hence the need for the ongoing reading program. Who knows what they will make in Oxford of such delightfully ambiguous Canadian quotations as "Loonies to help crime victims" (of a fundraising drive) and "Murderer declared dangerous offender" (well, duh!)?

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