Posted on 2017/11/10 by

Playing the OED

OED at bottom right

Mordecai Richler’s Oxford English Dictionary holds no place of prominence in Concordia’s Richler Rooms. Its location is humbling. It sits below a big, reflective, flat-screen TV; on a squat bookshelf that looks like but is not a TV stand; on two shelves below knee-level when the top shelf is bare; squeezed behind edgy plastic and metal chairs. One has to scrounge to get there. The dictionary’s twelve volumes and three supplements (this is a 1961 reprint of the first complete OED of 1933) belong to a mix of other books. If this mix were a cocktail, it would not taste good. Flanked left, the lot appears random and even a little grotesque, including a Francis Bacon biography with a face and a half of distorted flesh on the its cover, and a MAD comic book with MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, stewing himself in a witch’s boiling pot. This is all taking place in the auxillary Richler Room, supplementary to the shrine Richler Room, where the author’s writing desk and chair face a wall where a collection of other dictionaries lives at a height not inappropriate to hang paintings.

The OED has been relegated to a non-place where no one can loiter long. Each volume is 9” x 12” x 2 and 3/8,” and weighs nearly 10 lbs, the same weight as an average one-month-old baby (confirmed separately by myself and Olivia Wood in a test that involved rocking a volume cradled in arms). The second edition (1989) in twenty volumes matches my fight-weight at 137 pounds. “Weight signifies significance,” Professor Wershler told us this semester, and this was true for the OED through the twentieth century, before its primary form became digital. It signified value with its huge individual volumes, its multiple volumes, and the total volume they occupied, and with the muscle you had to exert in looking up a single word. In form, the closest relative to a volume of the OED is a big heavy Bible, with its high-quality, translucent, thin pages and its presumption to totality.

The OED signifies wealth in a variety of ways. As noted, it takes up real estate. It also signifies with its gold-foil stamp on its tight-weave navy-blue cloth spine. This is gold signifying riches, and this is not the blue of poetry, but a class-statement blue—the blue of a businessman’s suit, the blue in a fraternity’s signature patterned tie. It is, Oxford Blue. Evidently, the books were delivered with cream-colored dusk jackets, three of which remain in Richler’s collection, a sign of the books’ limited use. Are these jackets not disposable packaging meant to be shed and thrown away or burned once they reach the owner’s library? Their perseverance here makes the OED’s status as commodity surface. These are like snakeskins that need to be shed so the books can get on with their lives and acclimate.

Le Corbusier pilotis (wikicommons)

The meaning of heft changes depending on how we curate it. If these books were positioned up high, the message would be that we should see them, that they are more important. They might also seem lighter. They could even appear to uncannily float like one of Le Corbusier’s massive rectangular building blocks set on pilotis. The lower something is, the heavier it appears, and the heavier it is—the harder it is to pick up without hurting your back. So, heft is prestigious, but heft is also a pain and inconvenience. But that can be prestigious too, I guess. In one way, owning a hardcopy of the OED in 12 or 20 volumes is a performance of martyrdom.

You buy them, then you have to make room for them and keep making room all your life. You move them when you move, carrying their weight, a match for your own body’s weight and your body’s strength. Owning the OED is a feat, like a marathon or a hotdog-eating competition, which offers glory from self-punishment. Of course, it also used to position you as one of the keepers of the English language, which is problematic. Online today, there are still many barriers to access, so if you use the OED, you are still a keeper. I wish this dictionary did not pretend to be free with a taster online edition called the “Free OED.” All in all, it is a machine that inscribes an elite secret society, which is not good for the English language.

The OED acronym is not just a short-form but a brand that reinforces a mythology about the Oxford English Dictionary as a kind of oracle—a medium between us and the divine, or us and the void, depending on your religion—which transmits otherwise inaccessible, pure knowledge about the English language. The acronym is a sign of what John Law might call “the punctualization” of the project. It performs a literal and symbolic simplification that contributes to the myth. This helps conceal the mechanics of what is, in fact, not just a dictionary but a complex network of actors that controls a body of knowledge made precious, which exercises all kinds of social, cultural, and political power over everything from individuals to universities to the law. “Ah yes! The OED. The gold-standard arbiter of English,” I mutter to myself. Or, as the OED website insists on its banner image: “The definitive record of the English language.” Better yet, in “A Short History” blog post on the same website, the OED is said to have “the last word on words.” Under the “About” tab, it is “widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language.”

OED aura (press photo)

The auratic delirium of the OED should not be taken for granted but interrogated and played with. Acronyms are sleights of hand with soft power. They have sprezzatura. Like nicknames, they intervene in our everyday discourse by drawing a line of inclusion and exclusion. In English departments, knowing what “OED” means is a rite of passage. It is a secret code that purports to let you in to the society of keepers of the history of the English language. If you know what it means, it sweats for you and affords you a kind of social power over those who don’t know; it also affords a power of access, because this resource is rich and a huge help to writers conducting research and honing the terms they will use to build arguments and careers.

OED metagame (from

I always felt, growing up, that I was not using the OED properly, and that, since it was so important and I was so incompetent, I was committing a kind of spiritual crime every time I touched it, which I could not stop doing. My family owned the Compact 2-Volume Edition (1971) that came with a magnifying glass. I tried hard but could never work the magnifying glass—I didn’t hold it in the right orientation, at the right distance, or something—nor could I understand any of the shorthand notation that I half perceived and half guessed through the glass darkly. My only obvious success was stealing the magnifying glass from my father’s library to go into the yard and burn ants. So I played God with the OED. I also burned bits of paper and played Prometheus.

Reading Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux’s philosophy of the metagame, a term they hone using the OED (it gets four references on page 10 alone), I now see my early relationship with the OED as legitimate. I was “reading” the OED, just not its printed text. Extending Boluk and Lemieux’s philosophy from videogames to books raises a crucial question: Not what is playing? But what is reading? Do I know what you or what anyone means by reading? Are there rules? My early “reading” of the OED meant pulling it off the shelf and dragging it around the floor, smelling it, wielding the magnifying glass like a hot sword, “reading” nothing. I did not read the introduction, so I did not know the rules. There was no “utopian play” for me; it was all bootleg. At least I never reduced the OED to a product; it was always something other than what it was intended to be. Boluk and Lemieux argue that metagaming can help us from swallowing capitalism whole, and to this end I see that ineptitude and error breed metagames that are not wrong but complete in themselves, and that offer insight into the mechanics of power and knowledge.

Looking at the OED this way, I am now most interested in the barriers to its use. As Boluk and Lemieux argue, there is no magic circle, ever, only a messy circle (15) of play, and this is a positive theory for both reading and writing. It echoes Law’s argument that we cannot oversimplify messy situations without torquing them. It suggests that everything we do “in, on, around, and beyond” (11) these activities counts; it is not discounted because it falls out of the bounds others have inscribed for us—bounds that have all kinds of arbitrary power to limit our range of experience.

Works Cited

Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick Lemieux. “Introduction: Metagaming, Video Games and the Practice of Play.” Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Manifold Edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Law, John. “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity.” Systems Practice, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 379-93,

Martin, Reinhold. The Organizational Complex. MIT Press, 2003.


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