My frustrating reading of The Meaning of Everything has finally given me some pleasure. On page 205, Winchester describes how the recently coined word radium was omitted from the first edition of the OED and quotes a mock definition probably written by Frederick Sweatman (an editorial assistant) at the time:

Radium. [mod. L. radium (B. Balius Add. Lex. : not in DuCange). The orig. source is Preh.—Adami spadi, to dig;—Antediluv. randam (unconnected with PanArryan randan). Cognate with OH Has. mqdrq; Opj. rangtrum; MHGug. tsploshm; Mubr. dndrpq; Baby. daddums and N.Pol. rad are unconnected.]
The unknown quantity. Math. Symbol x. Cf. Eureka.
Aristotle De. P.Q. LI.xx says it may be obtained by the excrement of a squint-eyed rat that has died of a broken heart buried 50 ft below the highest depths of the western ocean in a well-stopped tobacco tin, but Sir T. Browne says this is a vulgar error; he also refutes the story that it was dug in the air above Mt. Olympus by the ancients.
[Not in J., the Court Guide, or the Daily Mail Year Book before 1510.]
1669 Pepys Diary, 31 June, And so to bed. Found radium an excellent pick-me-up in the morning. 1873 Hymns A & M 2517 Thy walls are built of radium. 1600 Hakluyt’s Voy. IV.21 The kyng was attired simply in a hat of silke and radium-umbrella.

Not quite Flann O’Brien, but enjoyable tomfoolery.


  1. Oh, that’s not even the whole joke! For the unabridged entry, go to Examining the OED; it has quite a few more quotations, including

    c1386 Chaucer Dustm. T. 31 Brynge..forthe yowre waysteid wrathym.
    1470–85 Malory Arthur XVII. 7. 935 Hauying a swerde wiþ a blayde of rathio.
    a1704 Newton Optics IV. 29 These rays are radium-coloured.

    Peter Gilliver credits this to H.J. Bayliss, rather than Sweatman; in any case I’d like to raise a glass to whoever decided to put this slip of paper in the archives, so that it could be dug out and enjoyed all over again a hundred years later.

  2. And so say all of us! Thanks for that addition, and for commenting on this hitherto unnoticed post.

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