Uses of the Oxford English Dictionary

Maintaining Common Errors in English Usage involves a lot of work. Sometimes all I have to do is answer various queries and suggestions from folks who e-mail me. About half of these are from people who have overlooked the fact that entries addressing their concerns are already on the site. For some reason, the “search” blank at the top of the page is underused.

On other days, I receive suggestions and corrections that require more work. Yesterday there were three.

The first was the simplest. In my entry on “bit/bitten” I had absent-mindedly omitted the crucial word “dead” from Walter Brennan’s famous question, “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”

The second was more interesting. Someone wrote to point out that people often confuse “vice” with “vise,” especially in the phrase “vise-like grip.”

A little Googling confirmed that “vice-like grip” is very common—sometimes as a deliberate pun, but more often as a mistake.

Wikipedia, however, says of “vice” vs. “vise”:

 The two-jawed workbench tool. Americans and Canadians retain the very old distinction between vise (the tool) and vice (the sin, and also the Latin prefix meaning a "deputy"), both of which are vice in the UK and Australia.

I am always interested in cases in which US English preserves older forms that UK speakers have drifted away from, and headed for the on-line version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is the standard tool for those seeking the history of words. Although almost every sizable library has a copy of the old paper edition, the current one is purely electronic. I have access to it as a retired professor through the subscription of the library at Washington State University and use it almost daily.

The OED did not confirm that “vise” was an older British spelling of the tool, so I’m not sure where the Wikipedia contributor was getting this information from. A brief note  states “The spelling vise is now usual only in U.S.” But the examples given do not suggest that the US spelling was ever common in British English. Almost every example given by the dictionary, from the 16th century forward, spells the word for the workbench tool as “vice.”

The OED even has an entry for “vice-like”:

vice-like, adj.2
Forms:  Also U.S. vise-like.
Etymology:  < vice n.2 5. 
  Resembling (that of) a vice; firmly tenacious or compressive.
1835    E. A. Poe in Southern Lit. Messenger June 570/1   Clutching with a vice-like grip the long-desired rim.
1839    P. J. Bailey Festus 136   Traitors! that vice-like fang the hand ye lick.
1856    R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits xiv. 233   What he relishes in Dante, is the vice-like tenacity with which he holds a mental image before the eyes.
1890    D. Davidson Mem. Long Life x. 258   [He] seized my hand in his vice-like fist.

So what is taken for an embarrassing mistake in modern North America was used by the very American Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson and is still the correct spelling in the UK.

I strive for compactness in writing my own entries, so most of this detail is omitted in the final version of my discussion of “vice-like” vs. “vise-like.”

The final bit of correspondence was from someone convinced that I was mistaken in asserting that “An unusual use of the word ‘wax’ is ‘to change manner of speaking,’ as in ‘she waxed eloquent on the charms of New Jersey’ or ‘he waxed poetic on virtues of tube amplifiers.’”

This person was convinced that the only valid uses of this term involve growth, as in “a waxing moon” (one that appears to be growing larger).

Back to the OED.

The oldest form of the verb “wax” has nothing to do with the word we use for applying wax to anything. It comes from Anglo-Saxon  weaxan, and was spelled in a wide variety of ways in Middle English including waxen, wacse, and vyx.

A note states:

Originally a more frequent synonym of grow v., which has now superseded it in general colloquial use, exc. with reference to the moon (see 6). With this exception, the senses below which are not marked as obsolete are confined to literary use, and have, in varying degrees, a somewhat archaic flavour; some of those under branch I survive only in the traditional antithesis with wane v.

Most of the examples given do indeed have to do with growth, but a separate section is set aside for non-growth uses dating back to the 13th century. I cite only the first three of a very long list of examples:

Without the idea of growth or increase: To become, turn. (Sometimes used with reference to a sudden or immediate change.)
c1220    Bestiary 151   If he [the adder] cloðed man se, Cof he waxeð.
13..    K. Horn (Harl.) 302   Vpon Athulf childe rymenild con waxe wilde.
1382    Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Matt. xxiv. 12   The charite of manye schal wexe coold.

The clincher is the “draft addition” dated March 2006 which discusses the sense in which “wax” is most often used today by American writers in the sense I discuss:

intr. To speak or write (increasingly) in the manner specified; esp. in to wax lyrical , to wax eloquent .
1842    Times 2 Nov. 5/3   The gallant colonel then gallantly waxed eloquent in praise of women.
1892    ‘M. Field’ Stephania 2,   O sorry sight! A Roman Emperor Deigns to wax eloquent, and by persuasion Has oped the city-gates.
1911    G. Cannan tr. R. Rolland Jean-Christophe in Paris 60   He had the genius of taste except at certain moments when the Massenet slumbering in the heart of every Frenchman awoke and waxed lyrical.
1978    E. Blishen Sorry, Dad III. iii. 114   Stationing himself at a window, he would wax more and more satirical and sarcastic about what he could see of the Boltons' domestic arrangements.
1984    C. James Flying Visits 13   The writer becomes less and less inclined to wax sententious.
1996    C. J. Stone Fierce Dancing xii. 184   Debby began waxing lyrical about the food. It was something else she told me.

It’s not surprising that not many of my correspondents have personal subscriptions to the OED (it costs $295 a year), but it’s worth checking to see whether your local library has a subscription. The paper version is now woefully out of date, but the electronic one is an invaluable tool.

No comments: