A friend of mine got me interested in wine a couple of years ago. He’s what you might call an armchair connoisseur (of wine, not of armchairs); that is, he knows a fair amount about wine and how it’s made and how to tell the different varietals apart, but he’s not one of those people who can swish a mouthful of vintage around and tell you which small vineyard in France the grapes came from. Nevertheless, he taught me everything I know about wine (not much, but that’s my fault and not his), and with his help, I’ve gone from thinking wine tasted bad (my sweet palate accustomed to and expecting something more like Welch’s grape juice) to really sort of liking it. I prefer the bitters to the sweets; a good Shiraz beats a fruity Riesling any day.
But it’s not that Dionysian beverage I ultimately wish to focus on here. It’s my own connoisseurship of another thing entirely, without which none of us could even speak about the things we value. Namely, and to quote Hamlet, “Words, words words.” For years, I’ve had a healthy obsession with words and their etymologies. I call it healthy because it doesn’t interfere with my daily life, because I have maybe 8 or 10 non-dictionary/thesaurus books dedicated to word origins rather than whole shelves full. I consider it healthy because I’ve lived a period of about two years during which I had no access to my copy of that venerable old reference work the Oxford English Dictionary. If the word monkey on my back were too furious and insistent, I would surely have caved in and repurchased the OED during that period of deprivation.
While I would love to own the full twenty-some volume set of the OED (or at the very least the two-volume set that comes with a big magnifying glass), I can hardly complain about a lexicographical deficiency when I do own the OED on CD-ROM. My parents bought this for me when I was in college (they were the worst sort of enablers). And I happily used it for years. Windows 95 was the standard PC operating system for individuals at the time, and the software ran wonderfully in that system. With just a few keystrokes, I was able to discover that the word “elephant” may have come from an old Teutonic/Slavic name for camel (olfend) or that the evil eye can also be called the “jettatura” (from an Italian word). But then came the new millennium and a spate of new operating systems. I used Windows 98 for a while and then moved, briefly, to the factory install of Windows Me, which caused all sorts of problems for my computer. Whether it was with that OS or with the later installation of Windows XP that my OED became obsolete I can’t remember; but at some point a couple of years ago, my OED was no longer functional on any computer I had.
I wrote the loss off to progress. My interest in words hadn’t really waned, but because I was out of school and had a job that didn’t have much to do with words for their own sakes, my focus had changed. And I did still have those eight or ten books I could go to if the history of a word was especially elusive. (Between those and a pocket American Heritage Dictionary, I was able to discover that the word “demijohn” comes from the French phrase “Dame-Jeanne,” or “Lady Jane,” presumably because the shape of a demijohn is similar to the shape of a centuries-ago French lady in her hoop-skirted dress.) I did nevertheless occasionally lament the loss of my dictionary.
The other day, while talking with a coworker about software incompatibilities, I brought up my loss of the OED as an example of one tragic side-effect of such incompatibilities. Since that loss, I have become a Linux user through and through (yet more progress). I cringe at the thought of booting into a Windows system. And my like-minded coworker knows this. So he mentioned a program for Linux called WINE that might be of some use to me. I had heard of the program but had never had good reason to use it. WINE, which I believe stands for “Wine Is Not an Emulator” (in the best geek tradition of recursive acronyms), provides an abstraction layer that allows Linux users to run many Windows programs on their Linux systems. What’s more, it allows you to select the Windows version you wish to run. And best of all, as with much of the software written for Linux, WINE is absolutely free.
So I installed a copy, dug up my OED software and data CD, and got it running successfully on my Linux laptop. And voila, I have my precious OED again. At my fingertips are multifarious words such as multifarious (having great variety or diversity), multifid (having many divisions [rather like the Windows security vulnerability list]), mutessarif (In the Ottoman Empire and Iraq, a governor of a province), and mydaleine (a poisonous ptomaine [the generic name of certain alkaloid bodies found in putrefying animal and vegetable matter, some of which are very poisonous] obtained from putrid flesh, etc.). Knowledge is bliss (a good Germanic word), it turns out.
Furthermore, because of the way WINE masks the Linux file system as a WIndows file system, I was able very easily to fake a CD-ROM drive, copy the data file into the directory mapped to the drive letter, and use the dictionary without having to cart the CD around.
And so it turns out that I am, after all, somewhat of a connoisseur of WINE, a software package that has, to use an old phrase, left a most pleasant taste in my mouth.