Top 10 Things You Can Learn About Bacon from the Oxford English Dictionary

This weekend, Oxford University Press announced that it may discontinue the huge and heavy print version of the world’s most comprehensive reference book, the Oxford English Dictionary. I own a mighty two-volume version (sold with a powerful magnifying lens) and I love letting my fingers do the walking through the history of our great language. The Press says that most people do their research online now, and while that’s true, it would be a shame to lose the book that yields the following information.

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  1. Whales make bacon too.

This definition is marked with a dagger, which doesn’t mean that it is a murderer; rather, that it is an obscure or defunct definition. According to a 1712 newspaper, “The Fat of a Whale… we call Bacon and out of which we boil the Train-Oyl.” Next time you order bacon at your neighborhood diner, be sure to clarify you want the pig kind, not the whale kind. Also: boiling whale blubber to make train oil? Looks like we’ve been having energy problems since way before the spill in the Gulf.

2. You don’t need to worry about spelling bacon wrong.

According to the OED, the following have, at various times, all been acceptable spellings of bacon: bacoun, bakoun, bacun, bakon, and baken. Which confirms what we’ve thought all along: YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH BAKOUN.

3. Shakespeare didn’t think much of bacon.

And we’re actually not talking about Sir Francis. According to definition #4, a “bacon,” short for “chaw-bacon,” was actually a pejorative! It referred to the fact that swine’s flesh was a meat primarily consumed by England’s rural population. Thus, calling someone a bacon meant they were “a rustic clown”: a peasant, a bumpkin, a slack-jawed yokel. The nerve! From Henry IV: “On Bacons, on, what ye knaves?” insults from this era include “bacon fed” and “bacon-brains,” the latter of which inspired the popular Elizabethan-era T-shirt slogan, “You say ‘bacon-brains’ like it’s a bad thing.”

4. We’ve been saving our bacon for a long time.

The expression “to save one’s bacon,” meaning to escape injury or harm, is even older than the waitresses at the greasy spoon on the corner who bring me bacon every weekend: its first documented appearence is from 1654, an Irish document that goes, in part, “Some fellowes [sic] there were… To save their bacon penn’d many a smooth song.” I hope the smooth songs were some slow jams… about bacon.

5. Bugs like bacon too.

The “bacon beetle” is another name for Dermestidae, the larder beetle. These bugs are pesky scavengers, and I’m no fan of Coleoptera in general, but if we share an appetite for bacon, maybe we’re not as different as all that. I’m sure I’ll feel an empathetic twang the next time I obliterate one with a rolled-up magazine.

6. Bacon is nearly, if not quite, as versatile as the F bomb.

We learned from “The Wire,” “Boondock Saints,” and the films of Quentin Tarantino that profanities can serve as many parts of speech, but it turns out your language doesn’t have to be R-rated to still be salty. You don’t often hear “bacon” used as a verb, but it has been since at least 1821: it means, of course, to turn something into bacon. The OED also lists “baconize” as a verb, and “bacony” as an adjective. That’s so bacony, it bacons my bacon bacon bacon bacon!

7. You can tell Wilbur what he’s good for, right to his face.

A “baconer” is a pig fit for being made into bacon. Is there any other kind?

8. Bacon has its own school of philosophy.

Well, okay, this may be true in a gustatory sense, but not strictly speaking in an academic one. A Baconian is one who holds that Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare. Not bacon, mind you, but Bacon. Let’s face it, bacon is great but even it probably couldn’t write Coriolanius. Maybe The Comedy of Errors, that probably could have been written by bacon, or by Jimmy Dean sausages, but a Baconian is one who thinks the Bard was nothing but a front for Sir Frances. There are also those who think eggs wrote the works of Herman Melville and that toast wrote the works of Tolstoy. They’re called Toalstoyans.

9. What you do with bacon informs how people think of you.

The OED is a vast repository of obscure suffixes, and the titles that go along with bacon reflect some linguistic treasures that have fallen by the wayside over the years, due to neglect. Are you a glutton? Then Rabelais may have called you a “bacon-picker.” Are you a rustic? Then you might be a “bacon-slicer.” Stuffed with bacon? Yes, please! That makes you “bacon-farced.” And if you are fortunate enough to make your living curing or dealing in bacon, then you are simply a “bacon-man.” Ladies, if you wish to be a “bacon-woman” you will have to petition them to revise the dictionary, because it doesn’t appear here.

10. Bacon has been casting its spell over diners and poets for centuries.

It’s not like we need a massive, hard-spined reference book to tell us what we all know deep in our hearts and our arteries, but it is lovely to discover treasures contained within, such as a poem from 1606 called Wily Beguiled that describes a lover, in part, “Whose eyes do shine / Like bacon-rine.” Is that true love or what? Although he may have been talking about a whale, which is not nearly as complimentary.

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