I can remember when, as a young boy of eight or ten years, I first heard the word “lexicographer”. I knew then what I wanted to be when I grew up. Before that time I had gravitated toward “zoologist” — and I had a scrapbook of cut out animal pictures to prove it — but lexicography, the making of dictionaries, seemed a noble way to serve mankind, and the very word itself rang out like a song. I was ready for the challenge.
In the end I didn’t make much progress toward that goal. There were no courses in lexicography in middle school, and anyway I was soon distracted by those newfangled computers and, later, by the glories of modern physics. Yet I retain an admiration for the lexicographer’s art. When in London a few years ago I made a pilgrimage to the former home of Our Lexicographer, Dr. Johnson; the editor of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary attends a church near my home that I have been known to frequent, and I regard her with quiet awe. For my own part, I keep the Oxford English Dictionary within arm’s reach, for there are many treasures therein.
I was delighted, therefore, to discover that J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Did you know that? While in his late 20s he had a two-year stint with the dictionary, from 1919-20. He worked mostly on words between waggle and warlock, providing both definitions and etymologies. His entries include walnut, walrus, and, as an exercise in careful distinction of usages, want. He later said that he “learned more in those two years than in any other equal period in my life.” His employment with the dictionary came to an end when he took up an academic position at Leeds University.
Subsequent editions of the OED have included several interesting new words: hobbit, orc, and mithril. All the world’s a stage, my friends, and we are the players.
I learned about this from an OED newsletter, which tells more of the history and includes some scans of Tolkien’s handwritten notes.