Category Archives: Book reviews

Lying to children about the past

I reviewed A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the controversial children’s picture book about slavery, for the Seattle Review of Books— read it here:

In my review I tell the real story of Hercules, George Washington’s slave-cook, a story far different from the happy fictional one in the book, which was promoted as “based on real events.” SPOILER ALERT: On Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules didn’t bake a cake– he escaped.

The book was withdrawn by the publisher over the MLK holiday weekend, but the issues it raises are larger than this particular book. We should tell the complicated truths about America’s founders and founding and stop lying to our children about the past.

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation                                    endeavour                             searching/seeking (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)|10               accidentally (subcategory)|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.


I read Lee Israel’s book, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, and no, I can’t forgive her, and neither should you. I hesitated to even buy the book and thus indirectly reward her for her crimes, but my curiosity was piqued by the glowing review in the New York Times Book Review (which called it a “pretty damned fabulous book”), and I knew one of the autograph dealers in the story. I have a wicked case of buyer’s remorse.

From 1990 to 1992, Lee Israel created over 400 forged typed letters “signed” by Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks and others, she sold them to over thirty different autograph dealers, and she stole authentic letters from libraries and replaced them with her forged copies. Throughout the book, she takes great pride and delight in her crimes and her cleverness, and she gloats over the fact that two of her forgeries were published in 2007 in The Letters of Noel Coward: “For me, this was a big hoot and a terrific compliment.”

She was at one time a successful biographer but explains, “I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick… Over a period of about three years, I plummeted from best-sellerdom to welfare.” Instead of going to work, when she needs money for her sick cat (no, I’m not making this up), she steals from the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “So I stole three Fanny Brice letters, slid them into a small notebook, ducked into the ladies’ room, and planted them gingerly between my socks and my Keds…. I felt no guilt about the letters. They were from the realm of the dead. Doris [her cat] and I were alive and well and living on the West Side.” She sells the letters to the Argosy Book Store, and when she discovers that interesting content will bring more money, she buys an old manual typewriter and begins composing and selling her own Fanny Brice letters. She quickly moves on to forging letters from other writers and celebrities, buys more typewriters, steals old paper and stationery, and throws herself into her new business.

When suspicions are eventually raised about some of her forged letters, she begins stealing real letters and replacing them with her fakes, and she hires a friend to sell the originals for her. Her only qualms surface in her dreams: “I was surrounded by the celebrity subjects of my forgeries, who were not on this occasion such good company: all nattering about how bad my typing was, how inept my punctuation. Dorothy Parker sniffed at my use of serial commas, which she compared to serial killers.”

She is finally caught after an autograph dealer calls the FBI. While waiting for her court date, she visits an autograph shop, asks if they have “something in a Dorothy Parker,” and finds they have two of her forgeries. “This one was priced unframed at $2,500!… Delighted as I was at my letter’s being experienced as Parker pure, I was nettled. I was going on trial as people were still making a great deal of money from the fruits of my labor. The extreme markups, which I’d not been aware of until this time, also annoyed me. Since the autograph business is gossipy and incestuous, I wondered how any dealer could not have known about the spurious pedigree of the letters.”  Instead of telling him directly that she forged the letters, she leaves the shop and writes a letter to the dealer as Dorothy Parker: “Poor wayward Lee Israel received only eighty-five dollars a pop when she sold them originally.”

Getting caught didn’t change her attitude at all. “I did the usual bullshit… voluntary community service, as impressive to the Court as discovering Jesus as personal Lord and Savior… Meanwhile, my lawyer… was doing a marvelous job bringing the numbers down on the federal sentencing guidelines, writing letters to the Court stressing my distinguished past and the badness of the patch that had driven me into a life of crime.” She tells the judge, “I feel and have felt over the past year enormous guilt and anxiety. I feel that I have betrayed really my community of scholars, a citadel of culture.” She never serves a day in jail for her crimes– she is sentenced to five years probation and six months of house arrest.

She ends the book with a token pretense of remorse, as if her editor told her she should at least pretend to be sorry. “I had spent a good deal of my professional life hunting and gathering in annals and archives, and messing with those citadels was unequivocally and big-time wrong…. I suffered and I paid by being barred from the libraries that I had plundered…. My guilt over the original thefts is mitigated somewhat by the gathering in of the epistolary diaspora. I cooperated with the FBI, and the real letters… were so far as I know all recovered and returned safely to their archival homes. I have never experienced strong qualms about [the forged letters… They] were larky and fun and totally cool… Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost.”

This very short book (129 pages, many of which are reproductions of her forgeries) has received a disturbing amount of positive media attention, and the writers of the reviews and articles about her, with very few exceptions, seem rather amused by her “adventures.” I was not amused. Her writing didn’t impress me either, as she comes across like a sociopathic Dorothy Parker wannabe, overly impressed by her own wit and quite pleased with herself for getting away with it.

Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the long tradition of glamorizing and minimizing crimes involving rare books and autographs. Book thieves and autograph forgers rarely serve jail time or pay meaningful restitution. But these aren’t petty or victimless crimes– they are not only crimes against literature and culture, they are also crimes against the very people, businesses, and institutions dedicated to discovering, documenting, promoting, protecting, and preserving for all time the valuable and often irreplaceable artifacts of our civilization. The fact that these types of offenses aren’t taken seriously by the media, the law, or the public is the real crime.