The Oxford English Dictionary retains a quiet pride in the lexical lengths to which it will – indeed, must – go. Some time in the late 1980s, John Simpson asked the poet Benjamin Zephaniah about the origins of the noun “skanking”. Zephaniah decided that the only way to explain was to come to OED headquarters and do a private, one-on-one performance. Skanking duly went in, defined as “a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist, and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat”.

The tale touches something profound: in capturing a word, a sliver of lived experience can be observed and defined. If only you were able to catch all the words, perhaps you could define existence.

– Andrew Dickson, “Inside the OED: Can the World’s Biggest Dictionary Survive the Internet?”


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