Rodent at OxfordBy Judy Prince
June 27, 2010
Rodent’s proposal for a scholarly paper had been accepted.
For 4 months he’d been preparing his paper entitled “All’s Boman!” (“All’s Good!”) about cant language in London in 1724, which only 3 other people in the world would fully understand. All 3 of them would be attending the lexicography conference at Oxford, carefully noting his research and discoveries about the language that criminals used to communicate with each other.
I figured my role was as Adjunct Rodent—or, more precisely, Rodent Control, because he’s often unaware of other people, his mind preoccupied with research. No one is more ruthless at research than dear Rodent. No one. He would cut his granny off his list of credible sources if he couldn’t corroborate her stories.
Before we left for Oxford, I began carefully calibrating my every word in order to advance dear Rodent’s aims, saying such things as “Perhaps the 4 pages explaining the difference between ‘hicked’ and ‘kicked’ could be shortened to a paragraph” and “It might be entertaining to include newspaper reports of Jack Sheppard’s arrest and hanging.”
As always, Rodent was way ahead of me, but he sweetly responded to every Rodent Control suggestion.
The week before the presentation, he had cut the paper down from 40 to 25 pages, but needed to lop off 5 more pages to meet the 20-minute time limit.
He sat at his desk with a kitchen timer and read his paper aloud, his sonorous voice describing 18th century cutpurses, pickpockets, whores and housebreakers. After several read-throughs, he had chopped off the final 5 pages, and we were ready to go to Oxford.
Once in our Oxford hotel room, he again timed his speech. A perfect 20 minutes. We were completely satisfied with it.
Because Rodent’s presentation was the last one of the conference, we got plenty of prior exposure to how the panels operated. While the paper presenters analysed Ukrainian phonemes, definitions of slang, and OED historical citations, I sat and doodled, silently praying for an all-college electrical failure.
Thankfully, things picked up during Q/A sessions as attenders flamboyantly showed off their knowledge, often interrupting and arguing with the presenters.
Finally, it was Friday. We arrived in Room 7. Two other panelists had also come early, as had the moderator, an expert at OED who collects examples of the earliest uses of words.
In a few minutes, 50 attenders filled up the room. They proved a lively group, throwing plenty of questions at pre-Rodent presenters.
Then dear Rodent stood up and distributed 3 handouts. He took his place behind the podium, placed his watch in front of him, and began reading his paper.
The last row was loudly mumbling as they reached for the handouts, but to keep to his allotted time Rodent neither stopped nor slowed his reading. I turned around and gave the back row A Look as Rodent’s first paragraphs sailed by unheard. At last things quieted. In fact, the audience seemed unusually attentive, turning to their handouts at the appropriate times, their eyes on dear Rodent’s handsome face as they listened to his Scottish lilt.
After 10 minutes, the moderator held up a big green poster to Rodent that said: “YOU HAVE NO TIME LEFT.” Rodent didn’t see it. He then held up a bright red poster that said “STOP NOW”. Rodent didn’t see it. So he handed it to a woman seated directly in front of Rodent. She leaned forward, and with both hands shoved it onto the podium. He glanced at it, looked down at his papers, spoke two sentences, and stopped.
The moderator stood, thanked Rodent, and asked if there were any questions. Total silence in the room. I prayed. He repeated: “Does anyone have a question?” I waited for one of the 3 people in the world who knew what Rodent had been talking about to ask a question. No hands went up, no one spoke.
Desperate to spare Rodent embarrassment, I raised my hand and asked a simple question which he happily answered. Then someone asked a brief question which Rodent gratefully answered, and the moderator pronounced the session over.
When most of the attenders had gone, the moderator began furiously typing on his laptop. Rodent wandered over to see what he was doing, and they chatted a bit. He came back, and I said, “So what was he doing?”
“Oh,” said Rodent, “he was checking up on the OED mistakes I had pointed out in my paper.”
That evening we went to the conference’s final celebratory dinner at St Anne’s College. A fellow panel member waved at Rodent and sat next to him at the table, and they talked animatedly throughout most of the dinner.
Later, I asked who the man was.
“He writes the Language column for the New York Times”, Rodent said. “He’s buddies with the moderator, and said he had stopped his presentation early, too.”
Happy Rodent. Happy me. ALL’S BOMAN!