There were towns
that knew about the flu before
it arrived; they had time to imagine the germs
on a stranger’s skirts, to see how death
could be sealed in an envelope,
how a fever could bloom in the evening,
and take a life overnight.
A few villages, deep in the mountains,
posted guards on their roads,
and no one was allowed to come or go,
not even a grandmother carrying a cake;
no mail was accepted and all the words
and packages families sent
to one another went unopened,
unanswered. Trains were told
not to stop, so they glowed for a moment
towards some other place. The food
at the corner store never came
from out of town and no one went
to see a distant auntie
or state fair. For awhile, the outside world
existed in imagination, in memory,
in books or suitcases, deep in closets.
There was nothing but the town itself,
hiding from what was possible,
and the children cutting dolls
from paper, their scissors sharp.
“Quarantine, 1918” by Faith Shearin from Orpheus, Turning. © The Broadkill River Press, 2015. 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 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.
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. 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."
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. And over the next 40 years, Hughes 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.