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The OED is 80: Ammon Shea Reports on Bicycles and Bars

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.

I always find it bemusing to travel to a new place, and the things I find most striking are not the overt and major differences between where I’m traveling and where I’m from. I tend to focus on the things that remind me of home, but which are slightly different – and somehow the similarities make it all feel even more foreign, as though I’ve stepped into an altered version of where I’m from.

Oxford is a city full of bicycles and old bars. We have cyclists and bars in New York City, but not in the same way. When exiting the train station in Oxford the first thing I noticed was not the splendid old buildings, or the difference in light, or the cars driving on the other side of the road; the first thing I noticed was the sea of hundreds and hundreds of bicycles parked in a lot next to the street. The only time I’ve ever seen such a profusion of bicycles here was last year, when I saw some news footage of a man in a nearby town who had been stealing bicycles for years, and had managed to accumulate a similar number.

The cyclists in Oxford seem to have much of the casual disregard for safety as do those of my hometown, weaving in and about the cars and pedestrians. But they also signal when they are planning on turning, giving a curious chopping motion of the arm. This never happens in New York, and it took me a day or two before I realized that this arm chop presaged a turn, and was not a widespread neurological disorder that afflicted English velocipedists.

And while there is no shortage of bars in New York, I found it almost unnerving to walk into a drinking establishment that was established several hundred years before the government of the country that I come from. The students lounging about on a Saturday evening looked not so different from those of New York, but the fact that the wall that they were boozily leaning against had held up inebriated youth for five hundred years made it feel markedly askew.

It’s the differences within the similarities that make Oxford feel like such a foreign place to me. Although I should confess that there were occasions this foreign-ness was also made obvious by something which bore absolutely no similarity to what I am used to in America. Such as when I picked up the paper one morning and saw that William Hague had attacked Gordon Brown for what he termed his “hubristic and irresponsible claims”. I am trying to remember the last time I heard a national politician here use a word such as “hubristic” without fear of being tarred with the elitist brush, and I cannot think of when that might be. This is a depressing thought, and I suppose that is why I spend my travels looking at bicycles and bars.

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