I first became intrigued by the central figure of this story, the dictionary itself, back in the early 1980s, when I was living in Oxford. One summer’s day a friend who worked at the university press invited me into a warehouse to look at a forgotten treasure. It was a jumbled pile of metal plates, each one measuring a little more than seven inches by ten, and — as I found when I picked one up — as heavy as the devil.
They were the discarded letterpress printing plates from which the Oxford English Dictionary had been made. The original lead-fronted, steel-and-antimony-backed plates, cast in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from which all the many printings of the OED — from the individual fascicles made as the books were being edited, to the final twelve-volume masterpiece of 1928 — had been made.
The press, my friend explained, had recently adopted more modern methods: computer typesetting, photolithography, and the like. The old ways of the letterpress men — with their slugs of lead and their typesticks, their em-quads and their brasses and coppers, their tympan paper and their platen brushes and their uncanny ability to read backward and upside down at speed — were at long last being abandoned. The plates, and all the job-cases of type for hand-setting, were now being tossed away, melted down, carried off.
Would I perhaps like one or two of the plates, he asked me — just to keep as souvenirs of something that had once been rather marvelous?
I chose three of them, reading the backward type as best I could in the dim and dusty light. Two of them I later gave away. But I kept one: It was the complete page 452 of the great dictionary’s volume 5: It encompassed the words humoral to humour, it had been edited in 1901 or so, and set in type in 1902.
For years I took the strange, dirty-looking old plate around with me. It was a kind of talisman. I would squirrel it away in cupboards in the various flats and houses in the various cities and villages in which I came to live. I was rather proud of it — boringly so, I dare say — and every so often I would find it hidden behind other, more important things, and I would bring it out, blow off the dust, and show it off to friends, a small and fascinating item of lexicographic history.
I am sure at first they thought I was a little mad — though in truth I fancy they seemed after a while to understand my odd affection for the blackened — and so heavy! — little thing. I would watch as they rubbed their fingers gently over its raised lead, and nod in mute agreement: The plate seemed to offer them some kind of tactile pleasure, as well as a simpler intellectual amusement.
When I came to live in the United States in the mid-nineties, I met a letterpress printer, a woman who lived in western Massachusetts. I told her about the plate, and she became visibly excited. She had a great enthusiasm for the story of the making of the dictionary, she said, as well as a tremendous fondness for its design — for the elegant and clever mix of typography and font sizes the stern old Victorian editors had employed. She asked to see my plate, and when I brought it to her, she asked if she might borrow it for a while.
That while turned into two long years, during which time she took on as much other work as a hand printer gets these days. She embarked on a series of broadsides for John Updike, made chapbooks for a couple of other New England poets, published a collection or two of short stories and plays, all of which she had printed on handmade paper. She was very much the craftswoman, all her work meticulous, slow, perfect. And she kept my dictionary plate standing on a windowsill all the while, wondering what best to do with it.
Finally she decided. She knew that I had a great liking for China and had lived there for many years; and that I was also fonder of Oxford than any other English city. So she took down the plate; washed it carefully in a range of solvents to purge it of its accumulated dust, grease, and ink; mounted it on her Vandercook proof printer; and carefully pressed, on the finest handwoven paper, two editions of the page — one inked in Oxford blue, the other in China red.
She then mounted the three items side by side the metal plate in the middle, the red page to the left, the other, blue page to the right — and set them inside a slender gold frame behind nonreflecting glass. She left the completed picture, with wire and bracket for hanging it on the wall, in a small cafe in her hometown, and then wrote a postcard telling me to pick it up whenever I could, and at the same time to take care to enjoy the cafe owner’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and her cappuccino. There was no bill, and I have never seen the printer since.
But the plate and its proof sheets hang on my wall still, above a small lamp that illuminates an open volume of the great dictionary on the desk below. It is volume 5, and I keep it open to the same page that was once printed from the actual piece of metal that hangs suspended just above it. It is what Victorians would have called a grand conjunction, and it serves as a small shrine to the pleasures of bookmaking and printing, and to the joy of words.
Once my mother noticed that the dominant entry on the plate and the sheets and in the book below is the word humorist. It reminded her of a nicely droll coincidence, another conjunction, though one rather less grand. Humorist had been the name of a horse that ran in the Derby on June 1, 1921, the day my mother was born. Her father, so pleased at the news of the birth of a baby girl, had put ten guineas on the filly, rank outsider though she was. But she won, and a grandfather I never met made a thousand guineas, all because of a word that briefly took his fancy.