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Finding Meaning at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Back in the Stone Age, when I was in college, the Book of the Month Club offered new members, in return for joining, a free miniaturized edition of the entire Oxford English Dictionary. I would stare at advertisements for the mammoth boxed set and its accompanying magnifying glass (needed to read the tiny font required to squeeze a twelve-volume dictionary into two fat over-sized tomes) and positively lust after it.

Though at the time I was still pre-med, I had long since developed an affection for the English language that bordered on obsession, and the OED—as I had learned to call it from those in the know—was an obsessive's dream. Still, the thought of all the Book of the Month Club's other offerings arriving every thirty days in my mailbox at a time when my professors were already assigning me more books to read than seemed humanly possible … well, it just wasn't in the cards.

Fast forward to 1976 and I'm now living in Santa Fe, trying to write my first novel—all dreams of medical school having long since been deep-sixed by a failing grade in calculus. In June of that year, a beautiful redhead took a summer job as a desk clerk at the hotel where I was working, and, incredibly enough, deigned to go out with me. On one of our first dates, as if it were nothing at all, Melissa happened to mention that she owned one of the Book of the Month Club's miniaturized OEDs. And I knew that I was hooked. Forty-six years later she still hasn't thrown me out, and I'm still using her OED.

Fast forward to 2007 when I first went to work for the Talbot County Free Library. Of course I'd visited the library as a patron countless times before, but usually in search of either a novel or some informative non-fiction; like most patrons, I'd had little call to enter the Reference section. But now that I got to work in the place, I familiarized myself with its every nook and cranny—and, lo and behold, tucked away on a lower shelf in Reference, I found that we—the people of Talbot County—own not a miniaturized version of the OED but the complete, twelve volume monster. And, once again, I knew I was hooked.

In The Professor and the Madman (920 WINC), Simon Winchester tells the story of the creation of the OED. From 1857 to 1928, without computers, a succession of editors and a vast team of volunteer researchers (including the eponymous “madman”—an American surgeon incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane) labored to find, copy down, collate, and alphabetize examples of all the different uses each and every English word had ever performed since the language first evolved from its earliest Anglo-Saxon antecedents.

It was, when you think about it, a near-impossible undertaking. When complete, the dictionary would contain the definitions for well over half a million words. The entries for the word “in” alone would end up spreading out over seven full pages (three columns to the page). Each of the library's twelve volumes is a foot tall, 9 inches wide, and nearly 3 inches thick. Winchester wasn't kidding when he called them “tombstone-size volumes.” Try to lug one over to a library work-table and you'll see what I mean. But oh, when you finally open that immense tome … what an etymological treasure is revealed!

A perfect example of this is supplied by a word that, thanks to Covid, has been much on our minds of late: “quarantine.” Nowadays we're probably all more familiar with the word's modern meaning than we would like, but did you know it was first used in the early 1600s to define the period of time—forty days—that a widow was allowed to remain in her husband's house after his death? It isn't till the nineteenth century, with several stops in between, that “quarantine” finally acquires the meaning we most commonly ascribe to it today: the length of time—whether on board a ship, in a special hospital ward, or in the privacy of one's own home—that a person must self-isolate till proven free of contagion.

All of which may sound like much ado about nothing, but for a writer, or anyone who wants to communicate clearly in the English language, it is important to know the shadow meanings that may as yet lurk in a word's background … and, quite possibly, in our collective subconscious as well.

Of course the word “library” comes from “liber,” the Latin word for book, but the OED enriches that little tidbit with the additional information that Romans first called books “liber” because the word also meant “tree bark,” the material they initially wrote their books upon. The word has come full circle in our own time as the paper we print our books on today is made from wood pulp.

All of which makes me very happy. I have long thought of the Talbot County Free Library (with its branching aisles heavy with books) as a sort of tree of knowledge; but I now realize that this is in a very real sense true: for the leaves within its books are transfigured trees and the library itself takes its name, however indirectly, from that selfsame plant. And it was our community's Oxford English Dictionary that taught me this.

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