Category Archives: This Day in History

TDH: The Oxford English Dictionary


February 1st, 1884: The first fascicle of the OED published.

Many an eager speller has quit within days of trying to read the abridged version of the dictionary from cover to cover. Writing the very first unabridged edition took a bit more time and determination.The project was dreamed up by the London Philological Society in 1857 and expected it to take 10 years. It was actually finally completed in 1928, 70 years after the idea was conceived and 54 years after work began. It took a year of wrangling between the Society and the Oxford University Press just to get started. When completed, it included almost 2 million illustrative quotations drawn from the over 5 million suggested by literally thousands of volunteer readers. Most notable among these was Dr. W. C. Minor, a Union veteran who had been committed to London’s Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a working man during a schizophrenic episode. From his cells, where it was presumed that he would simply live out his years, he dedicated 21 years of his life. In one 2-year period he provided no fewer than 12,000 quotations. If the very existence of the Oxford English Dictionary is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of the most daunting challenges. The work of Dr W.C.Minor is proof of the redeeming power of focused and selfless work.

Simon Winchester entertainingly tells the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary in his The Meaning of Everything. His The Professor and the Madman focuses on the story of Dr. Minor and Prof James Murray the editor of the project.

By the way:
fascicle, n.
Etymology:  < Latin fasciculus diminutive of fascis: see fasces n.
2. A part, number, ‘livraison’ (of a work published by instalments); = fasciculus n. 2.
1647   J. Mayne Late Serm. False Prophets 19   In your next Fascicle, you say, that I maintaine that some things[etc.].
1858   T. Carlyle Hist. Friedrich II of Prussia II. x. ii. 606   Suhm translates; sends it to him..fascicle by fascicle, with commentaries.
1887   Homeop. World 1 Nov. 521   The Sixth Fascicle completes this beautiful work.


TDH: Nolan Ryan born


January 31st 1947: Nolan Ryan born

Nolan Ryan - Exemplar Pitching PersistenceThe Ryan Express got started on this day in 1947. Perhaps no sport exemplifies the timelessness of life or the importance of persistence. No pitcher (with the possible exception of Cal Ripken) exemplifies these qualities more clearly than Nolan Ryan. He never won, the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the National or American League of Major League Baseball. He walked more hitters than any other major league pitcher, by far (the second word has 962 fewer walks). He threw more wild pitches than anyone else in history. He lost almost as many games as he won and never pitched a perfect game. He played 27 seasons in the Majors but only appeared in one World Series (a win). No one cares.

Batter after batter, inning after inning, decade after decade, he persevered racking up over 5,714 strikeouts. He stands as the only person other than Jackie Robinson (also born January 31st) to have his number retired by three teams (he also played for the Mets but had trouble getting into the regular rotation). He was almost unanimously voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. His career and in some ways, his sport, exemplifies patient perseverance.

Look out for our April 15th post on Jackie Robinson.


Gandhi’s persistent light


January 30, 1948: Mohandas Gandhi killed by a Hindu fanatic

The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere…Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more—Jawaharlal Nehru.

Gandhi_smiling_RSaddened by the death of the Mahatma, Nehru spoke those words 65 years ago. Since then, the inspiration drawn by leaders as diverse at Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi have proven Nehru wrong. The resilience shown by such fighters for freedom and their commitment to non-violent action proves that the light continues.
While Gandhi has been almost universally revered, he considered himself quite an ordinary person. In his autobiography, he describes himself as buffeted by unrestrained carnality. Recent works have cast doubts on other aspects of his moral character. Nonetheless, he remains an exemplar of the finest in the human spirit because of his unremitting struggle to reform himself so that he might reform the world. He confronted racism in South Africa. He confronted the injustices of British colonialism in India and ultimately gave his life in a confrontation with sectarianism in independent India.
He shows that through the very struggle for self-sufficiency one can reform ourselves and by doing so lead us to become an inextinguishable light in the world. On this day 65 years ago Gandhi lost his life but his light was preserved for the world.


And they seem not to break;


January 29, 1963: Robert Frost, American Poet dies

On this 50th anniversary of Robert Frost’s passing one cannot but think of that singular line:

they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves

As true of the resilient among us as of trees.


By Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969)