Know Your Words

The Fascicle Read ‘Round the World

On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million words, past and present.

— History.com, This Day in History

OED Dictionary Def
Part of the entry for “Dictionary” in the Oxford English Dictionary

Today (February 1) marks the debut of the Oxford English Dictionary, or at least its first fascicle, anyway.

What’s that? You don’t know what a fascicle is? That makes two of us. To the books!

Given the significance of this day, I looked to the compact Oxford English Dictionary for a definition. It did not disappoint. Fascicle is defined as:

1. A bunch, bundle. (Now only in scientific use.)
2. A part, number (of a work published in installments)

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language generally agrees, but refers to a fascicle as a “small” bundle. It also adds a botanical definition for fascicle, “a small tuft or cluster of fibers, leaves, or flowers.”

Surprisingly, the word doesn’t appear in hardly any of my etymological dictionaries (including the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories), except for Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. This text traces fascicle back to the Latin word fasces, “a bundles of authoritative rods,” plural of fascis, a bundle. Origins continues:

Latin fascis has an Italian derivative fascio, a bundle, hence a political group, whence both fascismo, hence Fascism, and fascisti, hence Fascists.

Whew, I didn’t expect the history of this word to take such a hard right turn. I’m not surprised, though, given the appearance of the word “authoritative” in meaning of its root. No wonder the OED is deemed an “authority.” (Relax, that’s a joke.)

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary began as a project of the London Philological Society and was led by a small group of intellectuals (not associated with Oxford University) who were “dissatisfied with the existing English dictionaries.”

Those intellectuals were Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, and not one of them gets a mention in the Dictionary of Global Culture (DGC), which is kind of weird given that Maria Kuncewiczowa does. Nothing against Ms. Kuncewiczowa, of course, but you’d think that the originators of the OED would be just as important as a Polish novelist and short story writer. The DGC is a fairly thick book. You’d think there’d be room for both.The same could be said for a mention of the OED in the book. “Punk” gets a mention, why not the OED?

But I digress ….

According to History.com, the OED was initially expected to be “a four-volume, 6,400-page work … estimated [to] take 10 years to finish. It took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete.” Awesome as that is, my favorite part of the OED’s origin story is that, as soon as it was finished, the editors began updating it.  “A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary.

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