Oxford English Dinner

Some OED entries badly need revising. A friend who teaches in Oxford just posted this to her Facebook status (I’ve noticed younger British academics in the midst of that end-of-year slow torture called ‘marking’ like to post little gems like this on social media for relief, or therapy):

Most telling student error of the year: ‘OED’ expanded as Oxford English Dinner.

Good one. For kicks I looked up that final erroneous word in OED. See how long it takes before your nose turns up at what gets served up for ‘dinner’:

a. The chief meal of the day, eaten originally, and still by the majority of people, about the middle of the day (cf. German Mittagsessen), but now, by the professional and fashionable classes, usually in the evening […]

b. to seek his dinner with duke Humphrey : see dine v. 1b. [to dine with Duke Humphrey : to go dinnerless. So to have Duke Humphrey as host]

Ugh. What a revolting definition. The fashionable classes? The definition has survived intact from its first incarnation in the 1897 publication of Volume 3 (D-E) of the New English Dictionary. Is this how turn-of-the-century lexicographers telegraphed an imagined auld alliance between the landed gentry and the working class, as partaking in the same original daily rituals (and forming, together, some kind of moral majority against the bourgeoisie)? A definition worthy of Johnson’s superciliousest, you might say, but Johnson’s own definition (1755) is the worthier of a modern dictionary: ‘The chief meal ; the meal eaten about the middle of the day.’ And here’s Webster (1828): ‘The meal taken about the middle of the day ; or the principal meal of the day, eaten between noon and evening’.

The OED is currently publishing about 2,000 revised entries per quarter – I nominate ‘dinner, n.’ for early action.

As a side note, notice the odd idiom to dine with Duke Humphrey, meaning to go dinnerless. The OED doesn’t support my instinctive analysis of this phrase, which is to spend the dinner hour (evening, for me, thank you) surrounded by books in the library, with only thought for food. That’s because Duke Humphrey’s Library is the name of the oldest and grandest reading room in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and is the place you go to look at rare and ancient manuscripts, and also doctoral theses.



Leave a Reply