The Unbearable Serendipity of Being

A lucky find yields the world’s best dictionary


Serendipity took on new meaning for me when I wandered a couple of weeks ago into Black Swan Books and Music in Staunton, Virginia. It is an extremely well-organized used-book store, free of the usual mustiness and belying the notion that such a store is obsolete.

And there, on a top shelf, was the 13-volume unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. To be precise, it was the 1970 reprint of the 1933 edition, complete with supplement. It was love at first sight.

There it was, the labor of love so memorably described in Simon Winchester’s 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman, detailing the collaboration between James Murray, the longtime editor of the OED, and William Chester Minor, a former army surgeon who was committed to a psychiatric hospital for nearly 40 years and who became the dictionary’s most prolific contributor. After the runaway success of his book, Winchester went on, in 2003, to write a more general history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything.

Had I been pining for an unabridged OED? Not at all. Could I live without it? Absolutely.

But, somehow, this compendium of the English language exerted a pull on me, a journalist who has been working professionally for more than 40 years and an author who started his first book at age 9.

The OED is the final word on words. The original edition was compiled over decades with volunteer contributors sending in definitions, quotations, origins, and other philological material on individual slips. Minor alone contributed more than 165,000 slips. The first version of 10 volumes contained 15,490 pages, with 414,825 words defined and nearly 2 million quotations.

More than just the quickie definition you can conjure up online in an instant, these entries unveil a whole world of meaning behind each word.

Take “serendipity,” for example. “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 from Serendip, the former name for Ceylon, on the basis of "The Three Princes of Serendip," a fairytale whose heroes were always making such happy discoveries.

Who knew?

Wikipedia knows, and the entry for serendipity bases its etymology on the OED, duly cited. Typing it quickly into the Wikipedia search box is much easier than lifting the heavy OED volume onto a reading stand (volume IX, "S-Soldo," which is not the biggest, weighs nearly seven pounds).

But you miss the charm of the Old Style typography in various sizes and thicknesses to compress the information onto a page. You miss, well, the serendipity of seeing words before and after.

The word before, “Serenate,” is justly noted as being rare. It combines “serene” with “–ate,” meaning “to render serene.” It is sometimes used as a variation of serenade, which has the more specific meaning of “a performance of vocal or instrumental music given at night in the open air, esp. such a performance given by lover under the window of his lady.”

The word after is “Serene” itself, but before the adjective we know best, the OED has an obscure noun with a confused heritage that means “a light fall of moisture or fine rain after sunset in hot countries (see Serein), formerly regarded as a noxious dew or mist.”

Close by is Serenity, with definition number three the one we’re most familiar with: “Cheerful tranquility (of mind, temper, countenance, etc.).” That definition is traced to 1599, found in “The Life of Sir Thomas More” in Christopher Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Biographies of 1833 — “His serenitie of mind was alwayes alike.” (That would be Christopher Wordsworth, by the way, younger brother of poet William.)

If this all seems terribly pedantic, it is probably because an unabridged OED is not everyone’s dream possession or preferred reading. Let’s just say that, for me, the serendipity of finding this treasure, which now sits on my shelf, has filled me with serenity.

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