Saturday, 9 November 2013

Episode 4: Beards, Brassiere and background (the episode with context)

In this episode, we take a step back and find out about Wordsdrow and the rules which govern it. Immerse yourself in this mix of fact and conjecture

What would eventually be the Oxford English Dictionary took about 70 years to complete and its origins in the second half of the 19th century – the epoch of Victorian achievement, invention, confidence and ambition – saw few limits imposed on the nascent dictionary. James Murray, he of the long flowing beard, watched the dictionary grow and grow under his lengthy stewardship as editor. When it was completed in 1928, it ran to over twice the size anticipated by Murray at the outset of his tenure as editor in 1879. The proliferation of words had been expected but the accommodation available for them was soon seen to be woefully inadequate.

Two measures were implemented to deal with this: adjunct buildings to the original 26 blocks built to house the words were constructed and a report was commissioned to devise a modus operandi which would ensure that the increased space was sufficient. The adjunct buildings were added throughout the 20th century and reflected various contemporary architectural styles: close to huge Victorian mansions stood functional brick Structuralist high-rises, hulking concrete Brutalist blocks and futuristic glass and steel towers. The new buildings were accorded names synonymous with dictionaries; the auxiliary tower for B-words was named the Bradley Building, after Henry Bradley - James Murray’s successor as editor of the dictionary - and another hirsute lexicographer.

In 1912, a report was prepared by the Committee for the Betterment of Living Conditions – a body whose name changed periodically to reflect contemporary mores with its early 21st century equivalent being the Office of Logistics & Lifestyle (Oflog) – which suggested imposing a limit on the population of Wordsdrow. The precise limit – 41,508 – was only arrived at after the publication of the first completed edition of the OED in 1928. The number was a nod to James Murray’s legacy: one-tenth of the 414,825 words in the first edition of the OED plus the symbolic addition of another 26.

It was decreed that annual statistics would determine the 10,000 words most frequently used and an individual would be assigned to represent each of these words. The remaining 30,000 or so of Wordsdrow’s population would perform the role of more than one word based on a sliding scale of usage. The statistics which solved the population/accommodation conundrum were provided by numbers located in Fibonacci House (named after Leonardo Fibonacci, the man credited with introducing what we recognise as numbers to Europe). Numbers were tasked with this job due to their perceived impartiality. Until then, numbers had led a sedentary existence with minimal, yet cordial, contact with words but their new role as quasi-arbiters of the fate of individual words led to widespread animosity and mistrust.

Numbers viewed this as unfair but their protest that they were merely filling a role which made use of their indigenous talents was contemptuously dismissed by words as akin to the “we were only following orders” defence. In truth, most words recognised that this was the only plausible method of avoiding over-crowding and deteriorating living conditions but it was more than their pride would permit for them to voice such opinions. Late 20th century technological advances meant that the statistical data required was available more frequently but the Wordsdrow authorities ensured that new allocation of roles to individuals would only be performed semi-annually. To do otherwise, they argued, was chaotic and an encroachment on the dignity of Wordsdrow’s word population.

The logistics of allocating this ever-shifting population to the relevant buildings required the deployment of the finest minds in Wordsdrow. Numbers viewed it as a simple application of statistics – individuals should assume  new roles with no necessity to be re-housed – but the sensitivities of words and the pride they took in the OED would not permit this. A sub-committee consisting of Wisdom, Logic, Subtlety, Sensitivity and Expression put forward a case for the “retention of alphabetical traditions and integrity of meaning derived from familiarity”. This grandiose proposal was approved and a series of complex weighted algorithms tweaked the statistics to ensure:

(a) A fixed number of words beginning with each letter were represented individually;
(b) A fixed percentage of each letter’s allocation of words would be monosemous;
(c) Polysemous words would be assigned roles with a broadly similar meaning.

After some grumbling – from words due to a perceived diminution of their importance and from numbers who remarked upon the prima donna tendencies of words – the proposals were approved, life continued and it was agreed by all that conditions in Wordsdrow actually improved as a result. Although the accommodation provided could be best described as spartan, History would remind his fellow words that their lot was significantly better than that of their predecessors by drawing attention to documents which recorded the cramped living conditions, squalor and discomfort of the early 1900s caused by a burgeoning population.

The origins of the individuals who were allocated to words remained a mystery. There was an accepted distinction between Wordsdrow and “the real world” and the emergence of new faces to assume the role of a word (or words in the case of the polysemous) and the unheralded disappearance of familiar faces was, in general, casually assimilated as part of their existence. Those of a more questioning mind, particularly Anthropology, identified some commonalities:

(1) The population of Wordsdrow seemed to be aged between 18 and 60;
(2) Most words could provide sketchy, vaguely remembered details of “real world” experiences;
(3) Nobody could properly account for their arrival at Wordsdrow;
(4) Most words seemed indifferent to (2) and (3), merely deeming themselves “lucky to be alive”.

Anthropology, whenever he found a receptive audience, would expound his theory that they had all died young in the “real world” and somehow been transmuted into a word. His conclusions were often met by shrugs and puzzled glances and, out of earshot, dismissed as the “ramblings of a deluded mind”; the sense of having received a second chance was enough for most words.

In Wordsdrow, it wasn’t just the architectural styles and technological advances which moved in synch with the real world; trends in society were reflected too. The suffragette movement of the early 20th century saw the first indication that female words craved a more active role. Concessions were won – inclusion in certain hitherto cloistered groups, representation on governing bodies, etc. – but it was the advent of a more strident feminism in the 1970s which brought a real breakthrough. Sexual politics arrived at Wordsdrow when Brassiere eschewed the wearing of one and the clamour for proper representation resulted in an edict which ensured a 50:50 gender allocation of words. This somewhat back-fired on female words when their vociferous claims to be the more adaptable of the two sexes – multi-tasking, they claimed, was a female talent – led to a disproportionate allocation of polysemous words to women.

Next episode: History lesson over, we rejoin everyday life in Wordsdrow

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