Author Archives: D-AW

David-Antoine Williams. I’m an assistant professor of English at St Jerome’s University, in the University of Waterloo. I’m carrying out research on “poetry and contingency”, funded by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. See “About Me” page on the menu above for details.

Unremarkable Poetic Neologisms

The word soulmate is by now at least verging on cliché, if not well in that category, which is why it was somewhat surprising and refreshing to learn that the OED lists Coleridge as the first user of the word. It was a reminder that common words can have uncommon origins–and that the coiner loses […]

Broken Hierarchies: Precursor to a Variorum?

I’ve always felt it was a peculiar kind of luck to live in the same times as many of the poets I read, and write on. Of course there’s the great luxury of hearing the poet “live” (what was Keats’s voice?)–but really what I’m most grateful for is to be able to look forward to […]

Soulmate, Yokemate, Housemate, Helpmate

Today’s Facebook brings a thread that does most of the legwork for a regular P&C-type post: In OED2, soul-mate was listed under soul, n., along with other compounds, such as soul carrier, -curer, -thief, and -twister. The new OED3 Online gives it its own headword, soulmate, n. and updates the Coleridge quotation to what you […]

Of Wingnuts and Moonbats

It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines. In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. […]

Forthcoming: ‘Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities’

I’ve just recently sent Oxford Journals the typescript for an article due out in Literary and Linguistic Computing, called ‘Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities’, in which I develop a concept of method in computer assisted literary criticism, using some my recent work with the OED. The article is both a case study describing […]

Hanover, Hannover

In early December I’ll be in Germany, presenting a poster and short talk at “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age”. The whole trip is generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, which among its various activities supporting research in academia and beyond, puts on a series of conferences at the Herrenhausen […]

More Dispatches from Literalville

Today’s LLog [“What did Justice Scalia Mean“] brings us yet more news out of Literalville, where it seems Antonin Scalia has been giving interviews to New York Magazine: Jennifer Senior, “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia“, New York, 10/6/2013: Q: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy? A: I don’t know when I came to […]

New words for new words

What do you call a newly invented word if you don’t already have a word for newly invented words? Here is OED’s record of the earliest evidence for various words for new words, the making of new words, and the using of new words. Not all of these authors would be pleased to find that […]

Boehner’s Eking Along

Did John Boehner have John Clare’s 1829 ode on “Autumn” on the mind this afternoon when he said: At a time when the economy is barely eking along, wages aren’t increasing, new jobs aren’t available, and what are we doing? [source] The normal idiom in English is eking out, usually with “… a living” or […]

You must be devastated today

From Paul Muldoon’s eulogy for Seamus Heaney, spoken at his funeral, yesterday:   I flew into Belfast International Airport yesterday morning…. The border security officer was interested in what I was doing in the US. I told him I was a teacher, and he asked me what I taught. I said, “poetry.” And he looked […]

“Create”, “Creative”, “Creativity”

What have you created recently? Or, what have your various possessions let you create? In the comments to my post on the rise of “lets you”, it emerged that the third most common thing you can be let to do is “create.” And in fact, since “lets you know” is operating differently from the others, […]

At the MSA – Levinas, Poetry, and Criticism

This past weekend I was in Brighton, UK, attending the Modernist Studies Association annual conference. I was there mainly to participate in a round-table discussion on “Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics”. The abstract said, in part: …in the wake of the interdisciplinary debate between literature and/as moral philosophy, and the critical reception of […]

Inter (and Intra-) necine?

You probably have used, or heard used, the word internecine. But what could the word intranecine mean? Either you have an intuition regarding this or you don’t (even if you’ve never encountered the word). If you do have an intuition about intranecine, take a minute to examine it–what basis can you come up with for […]

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

This morning brought the news that Seamus Heaney has died. Heaney is the first living poet that I remember reading, and certainly the poet who more than any other turned me to a life of reading poetry. It will be difficult to begin speaking of him in the past tense.

“Lets you”

If you’ve ever explained to someone how a gadget or app or website works, you’ve probably used a construction like “it lets me” or “it lets you”. You probably didn’t know you were on the cutting edge of language change. Language change isn’t immediately noticeable to those who are experiencing it–we notice when other groups […]

Word and Sense Creation in OED

Look up a common word in the OED, and chances are you’ll find it was first recorded in English over 700 years ago. Every word in the previous sentence is at least that old, with an average (mean) age of 1,022 years. So it stands to reason that, all other things being equal, the farther […]

“Chicken scratch”, coined by Shakespeare in 1909?

In “Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur” I conjectured that T. W. Higginson might have been riffing on the idiom chicken-scratch when he described Emily Dickinson’s handwriting as resembling the “famous fossil bird-tracks” of Amherst. Now I’m not so sure. Higginson published his essay in 1891. But chicken scratch  and variants aren’t in OED2 or OED3, nor  […]

Dies Caniculares

Lines against lines in summer:   Though I in Prochyta with greater ease Could live, than in a street of palaces. What scene so desert or so full of fright, As towering houses, tumbling in the night, And Rome on fire beheld by its own blazing light? But worse than all the clattering tiles, and […]

How to get “D’oh!” and “Bullshit” into the OED

I’ve been writing about missing links in chains of quotation evidence in OED. In the first case [redress] I think it’s likely OED staff came across the word in The End of the Poem and didn’t think it necessary to chase down the full referential context (which would have been fairly evident from about one […]

Chains of OED Evidence

Derek Attridge writes, in a comment to my post on OED quotation loops [“Smithers, Redress the Hounds!” 5.6.13]: W. H. Auden boasted to me that he had got a word — “plain-sewing” in the sense of “mutual masturbation” — into the OED by using it in print for the first time; but the OED now […]

Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur

In a graduate student’s paper this morning I came across a description of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting by T. W. Higginson, who in 1891 remembered receiving a letter, almost thirty years earlier, postmarked Amherst, MA. The letter was the now famous one that begins “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” […]

“OED’s Poetic Acquaintances” – Slides

Here are my slides from the very good Poetry and the Dictionary symposium last weekend at St Peter’s College, Oxford. Slides: “OED’s Poetic Acquaintances” For anyone not at the conference, the slides may be difficult to interpret. I’d be happy to provide context over email, and provide higher quality images [depending on your version of […]

Smithers, Redress the Hounds!

This post is about evidence loops in the OED. But let me begin at the end: In one of his Oxford lectures collected in The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon refers back to his predecessor’s famous discussion of the word redress. Muldoon writes: … in “The Redress of Poetry,” Seamus Heaney’s inaugural lecture as […]

Quotation Economy in the OED

Almost all of OED2’s 2.36M evidence quotations are used only once. Less than 1% are reused: 14,916 occur twice, 553 three times, 29 four, 3 five, and two six times. These most recycled [5x +] quotations are: a 1400–50 Alexander 4335. Nouthire to toly ne to taunde transmitte we na vebbis, To vermylion ne violett ne […]

Poetic Antagonyms

The verb “cleave” has two contradictory senses in English: it means both “to separate” and “to join together” (and so figures its own self-separated, self-joined meanings). Out this week is a journal article in which I discuss “cleave” and other self-antithetical words (I call them “antagonyms”) when they occur in English poetry, as well as […]

From William Camden’s Proverbs

A Cat may look upon a king. A dog hath a day. Agree, for the Law is costly. A friend in Court is worth a penny in purse. A good jack maketh a good Gill. All is well that ends well. A little pot is soon hot. A man will be a man though he […]

Robert Greene’s Vision

Written at the instant of his death Containing a penitent passion for the folly of his pen Sero sed serio To the gentlemen readers, health. Gentlemen,  in  a  vision  before  my  death  I  foresee  that  I  am  like  to  sustain  the  shame  of many  follies  of  my  youth  when  I  am  shrouded  in  my  winding-sheet. […]

Pejorative Eponyms – “Quétaine”

As often happens, today I was looking at something on the internet when my running internal commentary snarked, quétaine! People from Quebec grow up knowing this very useful word, which describes a thing, style or behaviour which is simultaneously lame, camp, kitschy, corny, and contemptible. Here is a site devoted to photographic evidence of it. […]

Ambivalent Toponyms

Today Facebook suggested I play a game called Cityville, where you can “build the city of your dreams.” Presumably you have to come up with a better name for the city of your dreams than “Cityville.” “City City” would be a terrible choice [although this guy is pretty happy with his Cityville creation, which he […]

Serendipity & Contingency

In the latest lecture to be posted online [], the Oxford Professor of Poetry tells us: Because I don’t go online in any way, I think and work almost entirely by serendipity. Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that […]

Sorts of Hierarchies

I was intrigued when I read that Geoffrey Hill’s forthcoming collected poetical works would be called Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (OUP: 2013). I recognized it as the title of a poem in Without Title (itself a title that suggests the breaking of a certain kind of hierarchy), but I hadn’t thought of that poem or the […]