OED as time machine


My pal Jim has a complete set of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was de-accessioned by a library in Quebec and he got it for nothing. It is now worth $8,500.

You can get the OED on line. The Oxford University Press will sell you access for $295.00 a year. If you belong to a University library, access is free.

But this is not the way to read the OED. Here’s what you want to do: get the hard copy, take a volume, any volume, find a big, comfy chair, and start pouring over the text. Warn the kids, unplug the phone, make yourself comfortable. You won’t be back for hours.

You have found a secret way in to a workshop of Western thought and culture.

Here’s the definition of Bohemian:

Taken from French, in which boheme, bohemien have been applied to the gypsies, since their first appearance in the 15th century because they were thought to come from Bohemia or perhaps actually entered the West through that country. Thence, in modern French, the word has been transferred to ‘vagabond, adventurer, person of irregular life or habits’, a sense introduced into English by Thackeray.

How wonderful. There’s more.

[A bohemian is] a gypsy of society: one who either cuts himself off, or by his habits is cut off from society for which he is otherwise fitted.

We know that the notion of the bohemian was embraced by the French avant-garde of the 19th century. They liked the idea of cutting themselves off from society. It become, ironically, a social type.

Indeed, bohemian impulse became ever more mainstream. In the American case, it was the beat poets who served as the agent of diffusion. They made the “person of irregular life or habits” a cultural hero. Youth culture was listening and the 60s saw the idea go wide.

And not just youth. As David Brooks tells us in his useful book, Bobos in paradise, the bourgeois bohemian became a pose for boomers as they traded away the suburbs for lofts in the city and coffee houses downtown. (Printer’s Row in Chicago is one of these. Soho in New York City, another.) Now, the person who “cuts himself off” was actually “cutting himself in” on one of the more interesting experiments in contemporary culture.

Your’re back! Plug the phone in. Give the kids the all-clear sign. Rub your eyes. The OED has just taken us from 15th century gypsies to the French 19th century to the American 20th century to the present day. Sure, $8,500 is a lot of money. But what did you expect to pay for a time machine?


Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in Paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Israel, Kali A. K. 1992. Style, Strategy, and Self-Creation in the Life of Emilia Dilke. in Constructions of the Self. editor George Levine, 191-212. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

For more on the OED:
Murray, K. M. Elisabeth. 1977. Caught in the web of words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press.

For more on the French bohemians:

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