Words and Civilisation: My Friend ‘Cox’

I have just acquired a new friend or, perhaps I should say, a new incarnation of an old friend.  My old one has retired to a well-earned rest,  after ten years of inexhaustible patience and loyalty, his jacket a little creased and bleached through lying too long in the sun, and a few accidental specks of crimson gouache on his side.  That’s what comes of being a steady companion of all my artistic games.

This new one arrived for his shift a couple of weeks ago, with the inscription Luxury Edition embossed in silver letters on his black spine, and sporting a glossy jacket with a pattern of large royal blue, lime green, and scarlet swirls.  He wears a small golden circle on his lapel, with the dates 1911 and 2011 stamped in the centre, to commemorate his hundredth birthday.  His name is printed on his chest in large sky blue and brilliant white letters: Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

This new fellow has two peculiarities, one being a scarlet bookmark.  Does anyone mark the pages of a dictionary? His other quirk is the odd placement of indentations to mark the alphabetical entries, in that the indentations are not carved out at the start of the alphabetical sections – as one would expect – but somewhere in the middle.  So, for instance, when you open the book at the indentation marked ‘A’, you find the first entry on the page to be ‘AH’, while all the preceding A-words start some twenty-six pages earlier.  Similarly, when you open at the indentation marked ‘C-D’, you find yourself staring at ‘crimp’, instead of ‘C’, which is 145 pages earlier.  A touch of eccentricity? He also lists favourite as a verb, in the context of websites.  Trendy, too.

The COED is not my first love, but one that has proved the most long-standing, so far.

My childhood sweetheart was a 1953 Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustré.  He had briefly taught my mother during a French language fling, and was kept on by the family, in case his services were ever required again.  When I was nine, we moved to France and I was sent – for the first and last time – to an all girls school, where the inmates used my shins as a kick-posts, and found it très amusant to call me names I could not understand but for which the lymphatic maîtresse would occasionally – in between yawns – tell them off.  At that point, the faithful tutor was woken up after two decades of slumber, dusted, and my after-school education entrusted to him.  He instantly rose to the challenge, and proceeded to take me on a trip to the foreign land of French Vocabulary.  A true Renaissance man, he had more than one skill.  He possessed within his dusky rose binding not only a list of alphabetised words, but dainty, ink drawings, with the occasional full-colour inset for illustrations such as world flags, flowers, butterflies and mushrooms.  The back of the volume had a list of noms propres, with information on and portraits of famous historical figures, as well as geographical locations.  These two sections were separated by thirty pink pages, entitled Locutions Latines et Etrangères, where you could find idioms, maxims and proverbs – mainly in Latin, but a few in other languages, too.  Monsieur Larousse had such irresistible charm, that it wasn’t long before I preferred his company to that of any other book at my disposal.  It became a nightly event, after I had finished my homework and my dinner, to bring the large, heavy volume on the kitchen table, open it at random, and start memorising whichever words captured my imagination, longing for an occasion where I could use them.  The biographical section gave me a taste for history, and I thought learning the various Latin sayings would impress the boys.  Live and learn.

Eventually, I became fluent in French, even scoring a high mark at my Baccalauréat.  As a gesture of thanks for his exemplary service, and even though a younger edition was now taking on some of his workload, my family awarded the 1953 Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustré a brand-new binding, in a burnt rose tint, to replace his torn and scotch-taped dusky rose original.  I sometimes consult him even now.  He still remembers things which his successors never even learnt.

Shortly after leaving the tutelage of Monsieur Larousse, I was introduced to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.  Cox, to his friends.  Once again, I had been blown into a strange land, with an even stranger language.  One which is not built on solid grammatical foundations, but which prides itself for its mercurial indomitability.  And so, once again, I began spending hours with Cox, opening him at random pages, fascinated by the spelling, the sound, the flavour and the spirit of his words.  Alpenglow.  Crannog.  Glaucous.  Mythopoeia.  Each word a microcosm of endless possibilities.

There are two books that do not live on bookcases but are in permanent residence on my work table.  One is a copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus.  The other, is my friend Cox.  He is my mentor, my inspiration, my favourite games companion, my ally.

When I start teaching at a new language school, the first thing I do is scan the bookshelves for a copy of the COED.  I find that most of my colleagues opt for the Collins, the Chambers, the Longman probably being a favourite.  I reach out for them only when I cannot find the COED.  I mean no offence or slight here.  They are in no way inferior.  It’s simply that every craftsman has his or her favourite tool and logic does not come into it.  Cox and I have come a long way together.  We know each-other’s style and quirks.  We make a good team.  Boustrophedon.  Deontic.  Idyll.  Melliferous… Bliss.

© Scribe Doll

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2 Responses to Words and Civilisation: My Friend ‘Cox’

  1. Paul says:

    I’m trying to learn Portuguese at the moment, emphasis on the trying. To hard!


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