Sunday Feb. 1, 2015


Restaurant Overlooking Lake Superior

Late afternoon: only a few old men at the bar drinking and
talking quietly. Waitresses for the evening shift begin to ar-
rive. One stands a moment at the far end of the dining room
and looks out the window facing the lake. Snow is falling. The
lake is completely obscured, but still customers will ask for
tables near the window. A few early diners begin to arrive,
then others. Soon the room is filled with sounds, people talk-
ing, the rattle of dishes, the waitresses hurrying about. The
lake is a great silence beneath all the noise. In their hurry the
waitresses don’t look out the window. Yet, they are in her
service, silent a moment as they fill the glasses with water.

“Restaurant Overlooking Lake Superior” by Louis Jenkins from Before You Know It. © Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1884 that the first part of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It covered from "A" to "Ant."

The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea for a new dictionary almost 30 years earlier, back in 1857, and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were "incomplete and deficient," and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times.

The dictionary, they proposed, would take 10 years to complete, fill four volumes, and amount to 6,400 pages. They were halfway (five years) into the project when they published the first volume on this day in 1884, and they'd only completed from "A" to "Ant." In the end, the dictionary took 70 years (not 10) to complete, and it filled 10 volumes (not four) and it was 15,490 pages, more than twice as long as they'd originally estimated to their publisher. The last volume of the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1928. It defined more than 400,000 word forms, and it used 1,861,200 quotations to help illustrate these definitions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a Supplement to the OED was published in four volumes. And then, in 1989, a big Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It's the one you're most likely to find in a library today. Its 21,730 pages fill up 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. There are more than 615,000 definitions for words in this edition, which also contains 2,436,600 quotations.

The longest entry in the 1989 edition is the word "set" in its verb form: There are more than 430 listed ways the verb "set" is used. The entry for the verb "set" is 60,000 words long, the equivalent of a modestly sized novel. The Bible is quoted more than any other work in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Shakespeare is quoted more than any other single author. Of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet is quoted the most — there about 1,600 quotations from Hamlet alone in the OED.

In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Now the dictionary is online, where it's constantly under revision.

It's the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). When she was growing up, she wrote love letters to herself, signed them with men's names, and hid them in the sofa cushions in the hope of shocking her mother.

She was a prolific novelist. She's best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Her last novel, The Finishing School (2004), was published when she was 86 years old. She died in 2006.

It's the birthday of the man who said of himself: "I like Tristan, goat's milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike Aida, parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges." That's the poet Langston Hughes (books by this author), born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His parents got divorced when he was a baby and he was sent to live with his grandmother, Mary Leary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother's first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, a harness maker and abolitionist. Leary joined John Brown in the raid on Harper's Ferry, and he was killed there. Mary kept Leary's bloodstained shawl, and when her grandson was a baby she wrapped him in it. After she died, he inherited the shawl. Many years later, his apartment in Harlem flooded, and the shawl was the only item that he salvaged.

Mary Leary Langston was a proud, college-educated woman. Even though she could barely afford her mortgage payments, she did not want to work as hired help, like so many black women did in those days. Instead, she rented out rooms to university students. She was a stern old woman who was unsure how to relate to her little grandson. But she made sure to raise him as a proud young man. When he was seven, she took him to see Booker T. Washington speak — even though he didn't understand what was going on, he said, "I was very proud that a man of my own color was the center of all this excitement." Mary also gave young Langston copies of The Crisis, a magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence, and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city, and he spent as much time there as possible, trying to make sense of his extreme loneliness, a combination of feeling abandoned by his parents and feeling left out of fun things that most boys could do, because of segregation laws. He said, "Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

When Langston was 12 years old, his grandmother died, and he went to live with some of his grandmother's friends — they weren't relatives but he called them Auntie and Uncle Reed. They had paid off their house, and Uncle Reed had a steady job laying sewer pipes for the city. There was always plenty of food. They kept cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to neighbors, and they taught the boy how to care for the animals. He helped out by collecting maple seeds to sell to a seed company, delivering newspapers, and cleaning toilets in a hotel. He had a good life with the Reeds — he said, "For me, there have never been any better people in the world."

When he was 14, Langston's mother sent for him. She had gotten remarried, had another son, and lived in Lincoln, Illinois. When he was graduating from eighth grade, Hughes was elected class poet by a unanimous vote. He had never even written a poem before. He was one of two African-American students in his class, and he said: "In America most white people think, of course, that all Negroes can sing and dance, and have a sense of rhythm. So my classmates, knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me." His classmates might have elected him for the wrong reasons, but they made the right choice. He continued writing poetry throughout high school, as well as plays, fiction, and essays.

In 1926, when he was 24 years old, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and an essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which thrust him into the national spotlight. He warned: "This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. [...] Then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority — may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let's dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself."

For the next 40 years, Hughes kept writing — he wrote 16 books of poetry, more than 20 plays, 10 collections of short stories, a couple of novels, children's books, essays, radio scripts, and even song lyrics. He died in 1967, from complications of prostate cancer.

He said: "Through my grandmother's stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother's stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought. But no crying. When my grandmother died, I didn't cry, either. Something about my grandmother's stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything."


Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

Production Credits

Host: Garrison Keillor
Technical Director: Thomas Scheuzger
Engineer: Noah Smith
Producer: Joy Biles
Permissions: Kathy Roach
Web Producer: Ben Miller