A Turn-out For the Books

In which The Author learns a new word

About a year ago, the venerable Edinburgh-based publisher Chambers ran a competition on Facebook. They’d published the twelfth edition of their Dictionary, the undoubted first choice of serious crossword solvers (and setters), Scrabble™ players, and word lovers in general. The idea behind the competition was easy: we were invited to come up with a suitably Chambers-style definition for an existing word.
If you haven’t encountered The Chambers Dictionary before, I’d better explain what I mean. It’s been noted for its quirky, almost Johnsonian, definitions in all its incarnations since it was first published in 1901. Probably the most best-known is its summation of éclair: ‘a cake, long in shape but short in duration.’ Other gems hidden within its 1800-odd pages include:
stud: a sexually potent or active man, or one who thinks he is
jaywalker: a careless pedestrian whom motorists are expected to avoid running down
massage one’s ego: to flatter someone, rub someone up the right way
middle-aged: between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner
xylophagan: one of the Xylophaga, a genus of boring bivalves.
The wordplay in this last definition reared its head in the pub a long time ago. The UK Yellow Pages used to have lots of cross-references throughout the classifications. One of them had caught my eye while I was looking up the number of the University Bookshop in Cardiff. It was on the same page as BOOKSHOPS, and I logged it for future reference. One afternoon  I was having a drink with Emma P., a red-haired photographer, her then-boyfriend Rhodri, and our mate Richard F. Both of the guys had studied Civil Engineering, and we were having a laugh about looking for work. I asked at the bar for the Yellow Pages and brought it over to our table. Then I flicked through it until I found the entry I wanted:
BORINGsee Civil Engineers.
Emma thought it was hilarious, and said I was the only person she knew who could find something funny in the phone book.
In 2001, before the tenth edition of The Chambers Dictionary hit the shelves, the publishers produced a ‘blad’ (a free sampler to give to potential customers) called Words, Wit and Wisdom. It included lots of their puns, like the ones above, and even pointed out that they were late on the field when it came to a particular buzzword:
One crossword setter in the 1960s, wishing to include the word miniskirts in a puzzle, found that the word had not yet been added to the dictionary, and came up with the clue ‘They should not be looked up in Chambers!’
I’ve always had a silly sense of humour and a taste for bad puns, going back to my youthful introduction to Round the Horne and similar radio shows (see No Laughing Matter). I enjoy playing with words, and my friends often enjoy the results – even if they’re unintentional. In a lecture one day, Gill was talking about the spread of English as a global language. She mentioned the example of the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury’s being taken over by Kraft Foods, and the effect it might have on the workforce overseas – or, as she said, ‘millions of miles away’.
I pricked up my ears and said, ‘Millions of miles away? What – are they in a different galaxy or something?’
Huw, Sarah, and Gill herself laughed, and I realised that I’d made an unconscious witticism to liven up a wet and gloomy Friday afternoon.
With this in mind, the competition on Facebook seemed right up my street. I was inspired to create something witty, memorable, and definitely in a Chambers style. While I played with various possibilities, I recalled Dr Johnson’s meaning of the word oats:
a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
I decided to go with something similarly barbed. The idea fermented in my mind for a couple of days until I came up with this distilled essence of a definition:
Alcohol: a colourless volatile organic solvent, used in Continental Europe as a lubricant in social interactions, and in Britain as a fuel for violent disorder.
I posted it on the Chambers Word Lovers Facebook page, and sat back while the rest of the entries came in. Anyway, they must have really liked mine, as a few days later I found out that I’d won a copy of the Big Red Book.
It wasn’t the first time I’d won a new dictionary. Years ago, when a new edition was published (it was probably the ninth edition, thinking back), Chambers had run a competition within the book trade to win a copy. Eric Lycett, their rep, gave me a copy of the entry form on his visit to the shop. It was a photograph of a bearded, bulkily clad man in climbing gear, standing on a snow-capped peak, holding an open copy of the book. Entrants were invited to come up with a witty caption for the picture.
Mine was a bit self-referential, which may have been why they liked it: ‘Taking Chapter 13 of Chambers Crossword Manual too literally.’ Let me explain:
I’d been working my way (very slowly and gently) through this guide to cryptic crosswords by the veteran compiler Don Manley (aka Duck, Quixote and Pasquale) for the previous few months. In Chapter 13 he left the world of the blocked 15 × 15 grid behind and struck out for the sort of territory occupied by Azed, Mephisto, the Sunday Telegraph’s Enigmatic Variations puzzle, and The Spectator’s unusual offerings. Mindful that the sort of words one encountered in these advanced cryptics weren’t to be found in the Collins Gem Dictionary, Mr Manley had called this section of his book ‘Mountaineering with Chambers’ – hence my caption.
A number of weeks later I got home from work to find a chunky parcel on Dad’s kitchen table. The postman had delivered it that morning, and Dad had been intrigued by it all day. I was equally intrigued – especially when I saw the label. It had originated from Macmillan Distribution Ltd in Basingstoke. I was used to seeing these labels. I’d unpacked probably several hundred parcels from MDL in my time in the shop, especially during the academic season and the build-up to Xmas, when I used to go in on my Saturdays off to help clear the backlog of deliveries. The intriguing part was this: how the hell had they got hold of my home address?
I opened it quickly, wondering what on Earth could be inside. To my amazement, there was a brand new copy of the new edition of The Chambers Dictionary inside. I instinctively opened the delivery note and looked for the order reference. It said COMP WINNER. Mystery solved (and thirty quid saved).
[A digression: I had a similar experience a couple of years later. I’d actually completed an Enigmatic Variations puzzle in the Sunday Telegraph. It was (by their standards) right up my street, with the grid being loosely based on the map of the London Underground. Once I’d found the key to the code, I was away! I posted my entry off and thought no more of it. About a month later, another parcel from Basingstoke arrived at Dad’s place while I was out. It contained The Larousse Encyclopedia, a massive one-volume compendium of the sort that one rarely sees nowadays. There’s a good reason for this, of course. By the time the ink’s dry on the paper, the bloody thing’s out of date! There used to be the Cambridge Factfinder, Philip’s Encyclopedia, the Macmillan Encyclopedia … Now, there are a raft of quirky little books like Schott’s Almanac, single-subject reference books (the sort that Penguin and Oxford University Press do so well) and of course the hoary old Pears Cyclopedia still rears its head annually. However, to find a comprehensive one-volume encyclopedia, with full-colour illustrations and maps, compiled by a panel of experts and overseen by an editorial board who act as guarantors of quality, is a rare thing these days.]
Anyway, back last autumn, after a quick word with Kath, I asked the good people at Chambers if they could deliver my prize to the pub, rather than sending it to my house via the Post Office or a courier. There was no telling what time it would arrive, and if I was out when the delivery critter (Politically Correct non-speciesist usage) knocked the door, it would open up a whole can of worms. On the other hand, there’d always be someone on hand to sign for a delivery at the pub. I didn’t know at the time that some country pubs, faced with declining sales, actually offer this service as a community service, especially given the closure of rural post offices. With the closure of Gadlys Post Office, and the steady growth of online shopping, I suggested to Kath that she could act as a dead-letterbox for people living locally. (I don’t know whether she took it any further, mind.)
My prize actually turned up early in the Spring. I’d decided to email the publishers when the Chambers Word Lovers Facebook page showed signs of emerging from hibernation, and I had an immediate apology. It turned out that there’d been a change of staff at Hodder Education (which now owns Chambers Harrap). The person who’d run the page had left, and everyone else had forgotten about the competition. To compensate me for the delay, they included a gratis copy of the latest Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I was doing well here – I’d landed nearly £70 worth of brand new reference books in return for a bit of wordplay and mental exertion.
Kath texted me a few days later to say that the parcel had come, so I called in on the way home from town one evening. This time, the books had originated from Bookpoint in Abingdon. The box and the packing material came in handy a few weeks later when Barbara and I needed to send a large-ish order to a chap in Leamington Spa. (See Up the Amazon …) There were a few regulars in the pub, and they were astonished by my prizes. Needless to say, the first thing Luke did was to look up all the rudest words he could think of in the dictionary (and was quite delighted to find not only those, but some others which he hadn’t thought of). A few minutes later Tony A. asked me if he’d merited an entry. To everyone’s amusement I replied, ‘Yes, Tone, wanker is in here.’
That night I took it home and put it on the shelf next to the eleventh edition. I’d already passed the tenth edition on to a friend who was getting into crosswords. In the meantime, the ninth edition had found a new home behind the bar in the Cambrian. The afternoon crossword solvers could settle their arguments peaceably, and I could use it at weekends when I had a go at Azed after Sunday lunch.
The centre section of the twelfth edition is made up of 64 red-edged pages. The second half of it is a Wordgame Companion, listing two-letter words you can use in Scrabble™, lots of words featuring a Q but no U, (mbaqanga, anyone?) and other useful cheats. The rest of it is The Word Lover’s Miscellany, a new section of ‘lists of quaint, poetic, and appealing (and sometimes not so appealing) words for you to enjoy’. It includes collective nouns, slang terms, odd idioms, some superb insults which would leave The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker breathless, surprising words, clichés, a British English – US English phrasebook (see Logorrhoea), a list of disused words which would be nice to see revived, and a section on ‘weasel words’. One of these euphemisms in particular caught my eye: Deaccessioning.
It sounds relatively innocuous, doesn’t it? Then again, so do ‘regime change’ ‘enhanced interrogation’,’extraordinary rendition’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘blue-on-blue’, until you find out what they really mean:
regime change = US-sponsored military coup;
enhanced interrogation = torture;
extraordinary rendition = outsourced torture;
collateral damage = civilian deaths;
blue-on-blue = US military-inflicted deaths of Allied troops
According to The Chambers Dictionary (12th edn), deaccessioning means ‘selling off library books, works of art, etc’. But just hearing the word ‘deaccessioning’ doesn’t prepare for one for the full horror of its implementation.
I’m sitting in the Reference Section of Aberdare Library at the moment. There are nineteen bookcases on three sides of me, each consisting of six shelves, probably measuring the standard 800mm wide. (I could never figure out why the leading UK firm of bookshop fitters was called Point Eight – until someone pointed out that the shelving was 800mm wide. That’s 0.8 of a metre. Clever, eh?) It’s ample space for the reference books they currently hold. In fact, there’s room to spare, as you can see:
The Art section of Aberdare Reference Library.
The Welsh History section
The Wide Open Spaces.
The area in the last photograph used to hold two (or was it three?) stacks of books, starting from 000 in the Dewey Classification and working up to about 730. Now those stacks have gone, replaced by a single display stand holding ‘Local Interest Publications’ for sale. There used to be shelves in the corner of the room which held the complete telephone directories (residential and Yellow Pages) for the UK. There was the complete Encyclopedia Britannica (all 32 volumes of it), the Dictionary of National Biography, prospectuses from every university in the country, Who Was Who in many volumes, and stacks of street atlases. Now that corner is occupied by a little room where the Poetry Society and the Reading Group meet. There’s no sign of the Britannica or the DNB. They’ve got the prospectuses for Cardiff, Swansea and Glamorgan universities. If you want a phone number, you’ll have to look it up online. (Always assuming that the public access PCs aren’t fully booked, of course, or that they aren’t being used by one of the several drop-in classes which run during the week.) Maybe the prevailing wisdom is that every Welsh student chooses to stay local, to get their grant from the Welsh Government, as there’s nothing on offer from an English or Scottish institution.
‘But where have all the books gone?’ I hear you ask. That’s easy to answer …
Deaccessioning in action.
There’s not just a pile of books on the table. If you look closely, there’s a whole trolley full of ‘withdrawn’ stock behind it. There are books on social sciences, music, poetry, literary criticism, and sport. They’re going to be sold off from a stack in the foyer – Adult Non-Fiction, at a mere quid apiece. This grand sell-off of fiction and non-fiction has been going on for months. I’ve had some real bargains. I picked up a great Welsh language encyclopedic dictionary a while back. I bought it for Sarah T.’s daughter Grace, who’ll be starting Welsh school shortly. The publisher’s price was £25. It cost me a pound. I missed out on a beauty on Tuesday. There was a history of art on the sale shelves, but I didn’t get my money until yesterday. I was going to ask if they could keep it for me overnight, but someone beat me to it. There’s a really great book which I’ve got my eye on already. As soon as it comes off the catalogue, I’m having that!
What does remain of the Reference Library isn’t much to write home about, either. Friends of mine still speak fondly about the days when they researched their college coursework in there. Now, you can forget about doing anything like that. There are three books on Mathematics in the entire place – Collins Dictionary of Mathematics, the companion for Statistics, and a textbook which is aimed at about A Level. There are maybe a dozen books on building, and nothing on Engineering per se.
I’ve just had a quick glance at the law books. Two of them caught my eye while I was typing, with the distinctive purple spines and red flashes of the Blackstone’s Statute Books. If I had a pound for every one of those I’d sold in my twenty-year bookselling sentence, they’d probably stop my Jobseeker’s Allowance because I had too much money saved. They come out annually, in late August or early September, always at the latest possible moment, so that students are armed with the very latest developments in English Law. The two on the shelves in the library – Family Law and Property Law – are 2007–8 editions. Anyone basing an essay on the material within these books will be five years out of sync with the real world. In a constantly-changing field like Law, old textbooks are quite literally worthless. Yet they’re sitting quite comfortably on the shelves, alongside twenty or thirty other books, some of which are probably obsolete as well. (There was a time when I could spot an old edition at twenty paces. I can’t do it any more, I’m out of touch with the marketplace.) If anything is going to be on the hit list for being withdrawn, surely it should be books like those.
The books that were there aren’t here any longer, either. A couple of months ago I wanted to consult the COBUILD Dictionary, to check the phonetic spelling of a particular word. I’d used it previously, so I knew they had a copy. It wasn’t on the shelf. Judith and I had a quick scout around. It hadn’t been misplaced. Judith checked the catalogue. It hadn’t been withdrawn. In the words of Vivian Stanshall, some rascal had half-inched the blessed thing! The same thing happened a couple of weeks later, when I asked about a book on Aberpergwm House. Steven the librarian knew damn well that it should have been on the shelf, but it wasn’t.
The Lending Library was closed for a month recently while it was ‘refurbished’. I had a look in there the other day. Where there used to be all-round shelving for non-fiction, more non-fiction on three stacks end-on to the main door, and loads of fiction nearer the door, there are now little island stands placed diagonally throughout the room. They’re much lower than the old shelving. My friend Kevin P., who works there, told me that allegedly the new units have been put in to help wheelchair users reach the books on the higher shelves. As Kevin himself asked rhetorically, ‘What do they think we’re here for?’
In reality, of course, it’s greatly reduced the space available for stock. I was here a few weeks ago when eight large boxes of history books were removed from the building and taken to the Rhondda Heritage Park for sale. If the same exercise is being carried on throughout the county borough, there must have been literally thousands of withdrawn books in the sale. Mind you, if everything is going for only 50p or £1.00, it’s hardly going to plug the deficit in the public purse, is it?
I’ve joked with Steven and Judith previously that if they carry on deaccessioning at this rate, I’m going to have more books at home than they have. Now that I’ve seen the extent of the sell-off in practice, I’m really beginning to wonder how much will be left in another year, never mind another five years. It’s not all bad news, mind – the resources for local historians and genealogists are top-notch. Only this morning Steven and I were looking at bound copies of the Merthyr Express dating from 1913. Not facsimiles, not microfilms, but huge, closely-printed, slightly foxed pieces of paper just short of a century old! It’s a remarkable artefact to find in this digital age.
However, the inexorable decline of what should be a key public resource is another benchmark of how dumbed-down our society is becoming. Surely the powers that be can’t seriously believe that everyone can simply access the Internet and find what they want.
There’s one small mercy, of course. At least Aberdare Library is still open, in contrast to many libraries across the country which have cut back their hours or closed entirely in the teeth of austerity budgets. But as a vital service in a very deprived area, it really doesn’t cut the mustard any more.