Thursday, October 09, 2008

Getting the Hang of It

Interesting question today:

What did it mean, originally, to "get the hang" of something?
katillathehun's answer, from the bulletin board, is delightfully gruesome:
Public executions by hanging were quite a spectacle in the good old days. When a person is hung, the moment after the drop where the rope snaps tight either breaks the person's neck or it doesn't. The humanitarian thing was to let the person's neck break; this caused a quick death. However, for a better show, if the neck didn't break, the person would twitch and struggle and suffer death by strangulation, although this was considered sloppy work. An experienced executioner who had mastered the difference and could do either was said to have "gotten the hang of it."

And, according to languagehat, ridiculous. He recommends the staid OED history, which references developing familiarity with a hand tool, adding that a part of that development is learning how the tool actually fits in the hand, it's weight and heft and shape; literally how it hangs from your hand.

I was going to go on to differentiate between getting the hang of something and having a knack, but a bolt of inspiration led me instead to the OED facts page. Fun!
First Edition
Proposed size: 4 volumes, 6,400 pages (with provision for ‘a larger dictionary containing not fewer than 10 volumes, each containing not less than 1,600 pages’)

Actual size: 10 volumes, 15,490 pages

Proposed time to complete: 10 years

Actual time to complete: 70 years (from approval date)

Fascicles: a bundle or a cluster.
Fascicle may also refer to:
  • Muscle fascicle, in anatomy, a bundle of skeletal muscle fibers surrounded by connective tissue
  • Nerve fascicle, in anatomy, a larger bundle of axons (nerve fibers) enclosed by the perineurium
  • a bundle of thin leaves of pines
  • A discrete section of a book issued or published separately.
  • Small clusters of flowers in the botanical description of flowering plants

Second Edition (1989)
Amount of ink used to print complete run: 2,830 kilos or 6,243 lbs.

Number of words in entire text: 59 million

Number of printed characters: 350 million

Equivalent person years used to ‘key in’ text to convert to machine-readable form: 120

Equivalent person years to proof-read text: 60

Number of megabytes of electronic storage required for text: 540


I think you have to buy the OED online, but their sitemap and search page has a bunch of cool stuff available for free. I'm reading about the sense section, which has been helpful in framing a question that's frustrated me lately.

Can you define common sense?

When I ask friends and folks for a definition they're usually vague and frustrated. That's just, you know, it's common sense! 'Shared understanding' gets them nodding in agreement, usually. The OED includes a chronological numbering to sense, recognizing that a word or phrase shifts and develops meaning over time, and different ones to different times in history. Does that make 'common sense', literally, the highest numbered sense record for any given OED entry?

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