Even so, the quest to capture “the meaning of everything” – as the writer Simon Winchester described it in his book on the history of the OED – has absorbed generations of lexicographers, from the Victorian worthies who set up a “Committee to collect unregistered words in English” to the OED’s first proper editor, the indefatigable James Murray, who spent 36 years shepherding the first edition towards publication (before it killed him). The dream of the perfect dictionary goes back to the Enlightenment notion that by classifying and regulating language one could – just perhaps – distil the essence of human thought. In 1747, in his “Plan” for the English dictionary that he was about to commence, Samuel Johnson declared he would create nothing less than “a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened”. English would not be merely listed in alphabetical order; it would be saved for eternity.
Ninety years after the first edition appeared, the OED – a distant, far bulkier descendant of Johnson’s Dictionary – is currently embarked on a third edition, a goliath project that involves overhauling every entry (many of which have not been touched since the late-Victorian era) and adding at least some of those 30,000 missing words, as well as making the dictionary into a fully digital resource. This was originally meant to be completed in 2000, then 2005, then 2010. Since then, OUP has quietly dropped mentions of a date. How far had they got, I asked Proffitt. “About 48%,” he replied.
The films, in addition to having diminishing returns, were causing a physical toll: He was a big man doing stunts, running around in front of green screens, going from set to set. His body began to fall apart. “By the time I did the third Mummy picture in China,” which was 2008, “I was put together with tape and ice—just, like, really nerdy and fetishy about ice packs. Screw-cap ice packs and downhill-mountain-biking pads, 'cause they're small and light and they can fit under your clothes. I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily.” Eventually all these injuries required multiple surgeries: “I needed a laminectomy. And the lumbar didn't take, so they had to do it again a year later.” There was a partial knee replacement. Some more work on his back, bolting various compressed spinal pads together. At one point he needed to have his vocal cords repaired. All told, Fraser says, he was in and out of hospitals for almost seven years.
He laughs a small, sad laugh. “This is gonna really probably be a little saccharine for you,” Fraser warns. “But I felt like the horse from Animal Farm, whose job it was to work and work and work. Orwell wrote a character who was, I think, the proletariat. He worked for the good of the whole, he didn't ask questions, he didn't make trouble until it killed him.… I don't know if I've been sent to the glue factory, but I've felt like I've had to rebuild shit that I've built that got knocked down and do it again for the good of everyone. Whether it hurts you or not.”
Specifically, I have deuteranomaly, or red-green color blindness. It was diagnosed in elementary school, and for a while it terrified me. I remember exactly what the room looked like; I was getting an annual eye exam (I’d worn glasses since about the third grade), and I guess they’d just started regularly screening for color blindness. They asked me to identify a number in a group of colored dots, and of course I couldn’t see any numbers at all. The lady giving the test turned and hollered to my mother, on the other side of the waiting room, “Did you know she’s color-blind?”
My mom was shocked, and not in a good way, and I thought, “Blind? Did she just say the word blind?”
A lot of things don’t have meaning until there’s some basis of comparison. When you’re a kid, your world is just your world, and you don’t know it’s different from anyone else’s until that’s pointed out to you. When I was a kid, people pointed to red and called it red, so I called it red; but what I was seeing wasn’t the red they saw at all. It took me a long time to understand what it meant to be color-blind. All I knew then was it felt like a dark shadow following me around, and I just wanted it to go away.
White folks would ask Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor the weirdest questions.
They noticed that she called herself a "Geechee girl" in her 1970 cookbook-memoir, Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. But what the hell was a Geechee girl? Was that anything like a "geisha girl," they wondered? If she was black, then why didn’t she consider herself a “soul food” writer like most other black food writers? And what was this concept of vibration cooking, anyway? Was it cooking with a vibrator?
You’d think that she was speaking gibberish when she wrote the book. In it, she’d introduced America to a radical concept: Cooking isn’t rocket science as much as it is an outgrowth of feeling.
Crammed with feverish, hallucinatory imagery—a “glutinous” swimming pool, “smears of curry and iodine” in a sky that “looks like a massacre”—these are gynocentric tales of angsty adolescent girls, anomic wives, adult women with difficult mothers, and elderly women with lost daughters. Braverman’s feminism can be hot and oleaginous, like the burning oil of medieval punishment, as when a domestic helpmate transforms into a witchy Medea figure to exact vengeance on her husband. But elsewhere the book’s politics, gender or otherwise, seem threaded with a gentle mysticism.
We all struggle with how to deal with our shortcomings, but few of us seem as comfortably wrapped in the question’s delicious, pig-in-a-blanket anxiety as Knapp, whose perpetual handwringing serves as the book’s unfocused narrative spine.
Negative news is one reason why people consistently underestimate the progress humanity is making, complains Steven Pinker. To discern the true state of the world, he says, we should use numbers. In “Enlightenment Now”, he does just that. The result is magnificent, uplifting and makes you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.