Essay One Million Volumes

At the ticket window were two elderly women lexicographers, off to London for the theatre. As we boarded the train, I warned them: have I ever got a story to tell you.

And so, in every gruesome detail, and in an open-plan Thameslink carriage, I related the saga: the sharpening of the blade, the tying of the ligature, the gritted teeth, the fatal slice – and, as I said this, so every whey-faced businessman in the carriage crossed his legs reflexively. There was a sudden corporate gasp.

But not from the two old ladies. They remained quite impassive, thinking. I could see the lexicographical gears grinding in their minds. Then suddenly, and in unison I swear, they spoke: "Autopeotomy!" they cried. Then one to the other: "Yes, Mildred – peotomy is the amputation of the penis. But doing it yourself – that must be autopeotomy. A neologism, I am sure. And Mr Winchester, if you can include this new word in an illustrative sentence in the book you are writing, then we will include it in the next edition of the OED, and you'll be a small part of history."

And so I did, and it duly was and I duly am, and there autopeotomy lies for ever, part of the glittering marvels that make up the English language and which, on Wednesday, is set to celebrate the creation of its one millionth word, according to the Global Language Monitor, a Texas-based association of academics that tracks the use of new words.

It is not known which the millionth word will be, but those on the brink of entering the language as finalists for the one millionth English-language word include "zombie banks", or those banks that would be defunct without government intervention; the pejorative "noob", referring to a newcomer to a given task or community, as in "She's a complete noob to guerrilla gardening"; and "quendy-trendy", meaning hip or up-to-date.

I relish them all and, quite frankly, blame my father, plus whoever it was in New York who invented the crossword in the 1920s, for my passion. For my father was a fanatic, and he urged me as a callow teenager to compete with him to see who could do this paper's crossword the faster, a cornflakes box as a barrier between us. We did The Times and TheTelegraph, but for difficult words preferred Ximenes in The Observer, and I came to love Chambers 20th Century dictionary, with all its obscure Scots words that the crossword-setter demanded.

And then, of course, it was but a slow progression from buying Chambers, to owning the OED. I bought my first 17-volume set back in the Eighties, in Hong Kong. I will long remember carrying the books downstairs from a shop in On Lan Street, and stuffing them into the boot of my car during a furious typhoon, sheeting rain and lightning.

I've never been without an OED since. I have three complete sets, including one, bound in dark blue leather and titled in gold, that OUP gave me for writing about the history of what someone called "the greatest piece of sensational serial literature ever written".

I open it up every day. Each morning I take a randomly selected volume to what the Arabs call "the cave of making" and ponder it for more blissful minutes than I imagine most proctologists would think prudent. But the things I discover, the ammunition I have for the hours of writing ahead!

For there seems to be a word for every concept, imaginable and many unimaginable. My favourite for years was "mallemaroking", which an early edition defined as "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard ice-bound Greenland whaling ships", which struck me as a masterly example of hairline linguistic precision. But a later edition of the dictionary slightly amended the definition, dropping the location, trimming it to "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard icebound whaling ships".

This prompted a friend to write a tongue-in-cheek polemic: the foul practice of mallemaroking, he declared, appears to have become unleashed from its native Greenland, and now threatens to extend its tentacles across the entire world. Before it is too late, it must be stopped!

I just cannot imagine any other language offering such opportunities for gaiety and fun. Reading recently that both the Germans and the Chinese have cracked down on the names people are allowed to have, and knowing that the French and the Italians still have gloom-laden academies to protect the
so-called purity of their languages, strips out all the amusement and joy that is so very apparent in the tongue we speak so happily. I feel for them, poor deprived purists.

But our language is not perfect. Perhaps not all circumstances are covered, and once I tried to invent a word to fill one tiny niche I felt I discerned in the lexicon. There seemed no word for the grey water-trail left on the kitchen floor by children who come in from the snow without taking off their wellingtons. So I came up with "drimmens", which seemed appropriately glum and grim and vaguely Scots, and I used it in articles for a while. But no one took it up, and, unlike the grislier example of self-mutilation, it never made it to the OED, nor to the Texan million list. I sulk still.

The language bobs and weaves. Words are fugitive things, altering their meaning as custom demands. "Sophisticated" once represented a bad thing, similar to adulteration (similar – but not the same: another delight of English is that there are also no synonyms, most words being highly specific to their task). "Sub-prime", the current bogeyman of the financial crisis, was by contrast once a good thing: once everyone wanted a sub-prime mortgage, which indicated a low interest rate. And these changes give me great pleasure, too, a reminder of how alive and ever-growing our language still manages to be. It changes as the world changes.

I have no doubt which book I would choose, were I ever to be marooned on a desert island: the biggest English dictionary imaginable. They say the next edition of the OED, accommodating all one million of our words, will amount to 40 volumes – enough to be used perhaps to construct the platform of a raft.

Yet I would never dream of doing such a thing, however tempting. I would keep it intact and dry, I would stay put on the island and read the good book every day – while endlessly sailing away with it, entirely in my mind.

Finalists for the one millionth English word

* Chengguan Urban management officers, a cross between mayors, sheriffs and city managers.

* Jai Ho! From the Hindi, “It is accomplished”; achieved English-language popularity through the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

* Mobama Relating to the fashion sense of the US First Lady, as in “that is quite mobama-ish”.

* Noob From the gamer community; a neophyte in playing a particular game; used as a disparaging term.

* Phelpsian The accomplishments of Michael Phelps at the Beijing Olympics.

* Quendy-Trendy British youth-speak for hip or up-to-date.

* Wonderstar As in Susan Boyle, an overnight sensation, exceeding all reasonable expectations.

* Zombie Banks Banks that would be dead if not for government intervention.

Source: The Global Language Monitor

Rudolfo Anaya 1937-

(Full name Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya) American novelist, short story writer, children's writer, poet, essayist, playwright, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Anaya's career through 1999. See also Rudolfo Anaya Criticism (Volume 23).

One of the most influential authors in Chicano literature, Anaya has been acclaimed for his skillful utilization of realism, fantasy, and myth in his novels that explore the experiences of Hispanics in the American Southwest. Critics have noted that Anaya's unique style was profoundly influenced by his fascination with the mystical nature of Spanish-American cuentos, or folk tales, in the oral tradition. Anaya first established his literary reputation with his acclaimed debut novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972). Anaya's preoccupation with myth and folklore—including his unique negotiation between mystical and realistic depictions of indigenous New Mexican life in the twentieth century—extends his prose beyond regional fiction and toward a more universal portrayal of human experience. Anaya's departure from the highly politicized tone of the Chicano writing of the 1960s distinguishes him from his peers, and the complexity of his characters breaks from the stereotypical portrayal of those in the Chicano community as simple, working peasants.

Biographical Information

Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in Pastura, New Mexico. He spent his childhood in the village of Santa Rosa, New Mexico and moved to Albuquerque as an adolescent. His hospitalization for a spinal injury in his childhood was a formative experience that he revisited fictionally in Tortuga (1979), a novel about a young boy burdened with a body cast. After briefly attending business school, Anaya earned a B.A. and M.A. in English, as well as an M.A. in counseling, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After college, he worked as a public school teacher and a counselor. Anaya eventually returned to the University of New Mexico as a professor of English, where he helped found the well-known creative writing journal Blue Mesa Review. Anaya has since retired from teaching to work as a full-time writer. His literary honors include the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award for Bless Me, Ultima, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Tortuga, and the PEN-West Fiction Award for Alburquerque (1992). He has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Chicano Council of Higher Education, and the Kellogg Foundation. Anaya's major novels have been translated into several languages, garnering him international critical attention.

Major Works

Anaya's writing is strongly influenced by the oral tradition of storytelling inherent to his Hispanic roots. His strict Catholic upbringing and the llano (open plain) of rural New Mexico are two major themes in his writing; his works continually refer to both as “havens” from which his characters are often exiled. His novels and stories attempt to structurally replicate the dynamic nature of storytelling. They are ordered organically, by natural and psychological cycles, instead of constructing plots that focus on external or historical events. Anaya repeatedly employs dream imagery to obscure the gap between the unconscious and the conscious. This allows both realms of analysis to be subjected to an artistic ambiguity more often associated with poetry or folklore than the realistic novel. Other archetypal images and themes frequently emerge in Anaya's work, emphasizing nature, faith, and the alienating effects of modern capitalism. The figures of the witch and the curandera—a healer who uses traditional herbal remedies—appear in many of Anaya's stories, and comprise the dual roles of the title character of Bless Me, Ultima. Young Antonio Márez, the novel's protagonist, sees Ultima, an old woman, as a representation of a dwindling way of life. Ultima also acts as a living reminder of Antonio's childhood, his ancestral roots, and the way that modern North American urban life rejects faith and mysticism. The quest for self-knowledge and the reconciliation between old and new American cultures in Bless Me, Ultima is variously reworked in Heart of Aztlán (1976), Tortuga, and in many of Anaya's short stories. While the setting of Bless Me, Ultima is predominantly rural, Heart of Aztlán deals with more urban and political landscapes. The novel traces the experiences of the Chávez family following their move from a small village in Mexico to the Barelas barrio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The reactions of the family members to urban life—ranging from drug addiction and violence to a sacralization of the rural homeland—illustrates the myriad pressures that Chicanos face as they adjust to modernity, technology, and capitalism. Tortuga details the recovery of a sixteen-year-old boy following a paralyzing accident. Anaya uses the boy's physical healing to show the tranquility of self-knowledge and the importance of physical and mental well-being on a communal level. The health of the greater community is symbolized by a hospital for crippled children, the primary setting of the novel. Anaya has contended that Bless Me, Ultima,Heart of Aztlán, and Tortuga “are a definite trilogy in my mind. They are not only about growing up in New Mexico, they are about life.”

In the 1990s, Anaya wrote four mystery thrillers—Alburquerque,Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), and Shaman Winter (1999). Like his previous fictional “trilogy,” these works expand upon his analysis of life in the New Mexican barrio while at the same time telling compelling detective stories. In addition to his novels and short stories in The Silence of the Llano (1982), Anaya has also published children's fiction, including Farolitos for Abuelo (1998) and My Land Sings (1999); poetry in The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985) and An Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez (2000); a travel journal, A Chicano in China (1986); and several plays, radio scripts, and essays reflecting on contemporary Chicano life.

Critical Reception

Bless Me, Ultima has generated more critical reaction than any other novel in contemporary Chicano literature. Critics of this work have found Anaya's story unique, his narrative technique compelling, and his prose both meticulous and lyrical. The reception of Heart of Aztlán, however, was less enthusiastic. Although many critics have approved of the novel's mythic substructure, some commentators have found Anaya's intermingling of myth and politics confusing. Tortuga has also prompted a mixed critical response. Some commentators, extolling the novel's structural complexity and innovative depiction of Chicano life, have proclaimed Tortuga Anaya's best work; other critics have denigrated the novel as melodramatic and unrealistic. The works in Anaya's second series—Alburquerque,Zia Summer,Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter—are widely regarded to be more commercial novels and were less well-received that his original, unofficial “trilogy” (Ultima,Heart, and Tortuga). Anaya's novels continue to be studied and analyzed with an intensity accorded to few other Hispanic writers. Praised for their universal appeal, his works have been translated into a number of languages. Of Anaya's international success, Antonio Marquez has written, “It is befitting for Anaya to receive the honor and the task of leading Chicano literature into the canons of world literature. He is the most acclaimed and the most popular and universal Chicano writer, and one of the most influential voices in contemporary Chicano literature.”

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