Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary with Madeira

As my youth was pre-internet, and maybe st definatley pre spell check or predictive text it was basically a given that every house would have a dictionary (and a phone directory, a yellow pages, and a bible even if no other books). We had pocket dictionarys for school, and I went off to university with something rather like a brick. I coveted my mother's Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which came in two sturdy volumes (which seemed mildly amusing and made me wonder what the full length version must look like).

Now I have a smartphone and feel something has been lost. I think it's the sense of what an enormous amount of words there are (in every language) that looking at that two volume monster gave me. It also managed to convey something of the scale of the job of collecting them, and more intriguing- what words make it in, which are cut out, who decides these things - thevquestions go on. 

Peter Gilliver's 'The Making of The Oxford English Dictionary' covers its century and a half history from conception to realisation. In the process it reveals some of the human stories behind the OED as well.

It's a substantial tome in its own right, one which I've been slowly working my way through for a while now, and one of the things I like most about it is how many people have been interested (and frankly covetous) when they've seen it. I haven't checked to see if it's on many recommended lists for present buying, but it's on mine. Given the lack of reviews on Amazon I'm guessing it might have slipped under the radar a bit, but if you're reading thit s the chances are that you, like me, will know at least a couple of people who find this sort of stuff really exciting. This Link to a review on Vulpes Libris gives more details.

There is only one wine I can think of that can match a project like this and it's Madeira. I wrote about it last year Here so will try and be brief. It's amazing stuff, the way it's made means it keeps indefinitely even after the bottle is opened (nothing else does this in quite the same way, not even spirits). The older the Madeira, and it's possible to get some very old examples, the more complex and fascinating it becomes. If you like the stuff getting your hands on a really old bottle is a luxury worth paying for. 

If you don't yet know Madeira start with something basic like Blandy's Duke of Clarence, if you don't  like it, it will still help make excellent gravy (a basic bottle ought to be a kitchen staple). If you do like it run through the different styles to find how dry or sweet you prefer it, and when you have that sorted look for bottles that are a minimum of 15 years old. 

Madeira is everything I find most exciting about wine, from a purely intellectual point of view it has to be my favourite (which isn't quite the same as my favourite to drink - that would be top end claret, but I can't afford that anymore so it's a moot point) because there's so much to think about, so many aromas and flavours to unravel, and because there's really nothing else quite like it. 


  1. My father who lived to the age of 84 came to Madeira late in life.
    He enjoyed a couple of single malt whiskies before a good dinner. Always Macallan's.
    But he told me that after eating he lost all interest in strong drink.
    Even beer held no attraction for him then.
    He had renounced tobacco before I was born so he only wanted a cup of tea after dinner.
    My late brother-in-law liked to see everyone with a drink. So he 'tried out' a post-prandial Madeira on my father, who took to it like a duck to water.
    My father was a working-class Glaswegian. He had only ever come across Madeira in novels written by toffs like Evelyn Waugh.
    But he would say with a smile, 'I'm in the mood for a Madeira.'
    The point of my story is that drink now transcends class.
    I am sure Blandy's Duke of Clarence is drunk by all manner of people.
    Incidentally my mother who lived to the age of 97 never drank or smoked.
    Her idea of luxury was a glass of orangeade with ice cream. She loved chocolate.
    She kept my father on the straight and narrow.
    J Haggerty

  2. Your father clearly had a discerning palate. Like great books, and art, good drink should be for everyone who cares to explore them. There's great pleasure to be had from the quiet contemplation of something like a good Madeira or single malt - or any well made drink.

  3. I have the Shorter OED - such a delight to dip into. Although it's not wildly practical, I crave the whole set. A while back one could buy it in one (?) volume with every page miniaturized -- it came with a magnifying glass! I am still hoping to find one secondhand one day.

  4. I'd like a whole set too, but not at all practical, and not very space efficient either, but somehow there's a magic to dictionary's.