Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reflects on his trip to Oxford.
The tired old truism about Americans and the English being two people separated by a common language is something I’ve long been aware of, so when I visited Oxford the other week there were very few difficulties in navigating the differences in speech. What I did find confusing was the way that the Oxfordians talk about their colleges – and one college in particular.
I was having dinner with a group of OUP editors (from the UK) and publicists (from New York), and half-way through the meal the principal of one of the local colleges, one Lord Krebs, stopped by and joined us. He was soon engrossed in conversation with the editors at the other end of the table. I was eavesdropping in an unintentional sort of way, and growing increasingly confused.
I think my confusion began when I overheard the following snippet:
“Hmmm…that’s funny, I didn’t know Jesus was Welsh…”
“You didn’t know Jesus was Welsh?”
As I began listening more intently I suddenly was overcome with the fear that these witty and erudite members of Oxford University Press with whom I was so impressed were actually all adherents of some strange evangelical movement.
“One of my duties for Jesus is to look after the real estate, and do you know…Jesus owns a lot of real estate.”
“Jesus owns real estate?”
“Why yes…tons of it.”
“Well, I’d always known that Jesus was well-off, but not rich.”
“I’d have to say that Jesus is stinking rich.”
“Hmmm…what kind of properties are you talking about?”
“Mostly, Jesus owns a lot of farms in Wales, but all kinds of places really. Did you know that Jesus even owns a lingerie store?”
“Jesus owns a lingerie store!?!?”
At this point the participants in the conversation noticed that all the Americans had stopped talking, and were exhibiting the sort of polite yet strained interest that one reserves for things that are unavoidable and potentially quite discomfiting. It turns out that Lord Krebs is the principal of Jesus College of the University of Oxford (“renowned for being one of the friendliest colleges in Oxford” according to its web site), and the locals unsurprisingly refer to the institution by its first name.
I returned to my meal, secure and comforted by the twin bits of knowledge that Jesus (the historical figure) was not selling naughty underwear and that wherever I visit I will always find the local vernacular something that will delightfully confuse me.