I am fascinated by the concept of Hell. One of the things that the teachers never failed to remind us of daily, during my 1950s ‘education’ in a series of dreary Catholic schools in West London, was the fact that death in a state of mortal sin meant an instant one-way ticket to Hell. There, you burned in fire and brimstone for ever and ever and ever. As I recall, I was five or six years old when I was first taught that. The online Catechism of the Catholic Church, confirms that that instructed belief remains the case today.
As part of an investigation into this most unbelievably brutal of doctrines, I have been looking at what literature has had to say about Hell over the centuries. Dante’s Inferno, dating from the 14th century, has Satan in the lowest circle of Hell, encased not in fire and brimstone, but in ice… This is strange, since in English ‘Inferno’ means a fire out of control. I wanted to understand the etymology of the word ‘inferno’, and this is where the exalted Oxford English Dictionary entirely failed to help, because for the word ‘inferno’ it has absolutely nothing about fire, mentioning only Dante’s poem. ‘Inferno’ would appear to be Dr Johnson’s sausage…
Now this is all very odd. I checked and rechecked the online version – one would imagine that at least to be bang up to date – as well as the full 1989 edition of the OED in the Chelmsford Library. Both were the same. I attach a picture of the printed version with the entries either side least there should be any mistake - Volume VII, Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, Page 926. The online entry appears to be identical, except that “Ruskin’s Praeterita III, is dated 1888 rather than 1889.
But stranger still, my Concise Oxford Dictionary, 11th edition, 2008, Page 728, does have a definition for ‘inferno’: "A large fire that is dangerously out of control" – in fact, that is the first entry; the reference to Dante's Inferno in the Divine Comedy is only the second meaning.
So what on earth is going on at the OED? How is it possible that the principal meaning of a word in common usage can possibly have been omitted from the Bible of the English Language, the Oxford English Dictionary? The fact that a 28-year-old multi-volume copy of the dictionary also, apparently, does not include this entry, proves that this is more than just a computer cock-up.
I contacted the OED about this problem a month ago and received an acknowledgement, with the promise that my enquiry would be forwarded for consideration to the appropriate quarter. A month later, and there has been no further communication and nothing has changed.
This has really shaken my faith in the dictionary. I use it all the time; not only is it a peerless resource for the meaning of obscure words, it includes so much on their origin and usage. I keep feeling that I must have made a mistake, but I have checked this a dozen times over and I’m damned if I can see any error on my part.
Still no word from the OED. My own researches show that the Latin word Infernus, from which the Italian Inferno obviously derives, means ‘That which is below, lower … or relating to the lower world’. My (contemporary) Italian dictionary gives Inferno as meaning ‘Hell’. Infuriatingly, the same dictionary gives Inferno as the Italian for the English word Inferno (although this is consistent with the OED) …
It has been suggested that the use of Inferno to mean a raging fire is relatively recent. The fact that the meaning appears in the Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the lie to that argument. That archetypal disaster movie Towering Inferno came out in 1974, 15 years before the 1989 printed edition of the OED. We all know that life moves more slowly in Oxford academe than elsewhere, but 15 years? In any case, the briefest of scans through back numbers of The Times reveals the use of the word Inferno to mean a serious fire at least as early as the 1930s.
At some point – this is where I need the help of the clever etymologists at Oxford – the word Inferno meaning Hell, came to mean, via Hell Fire etc., Inferno meaning a seriously out of control fire. I want to know how and when. I may have to resort to the BBC Today programme to shame the OED into admitting that there really is an omission in their dictionary, and committing to rectify it.
Note added 23th March
Further emails to the OED and the Today programme have generated no response. Oh well, I tried. I'll just have to conduct my own researches into the etymology of the word Inferno. If there are any startling findings, I'll publish them here ...
Note added 29th March
A reply from the OED: "...I can assure you that your message has been passed on to our editors, who have asked me to thank you for pointing out the omission, and for bringing it to their attention for future updates. Please be aware that entry revisions can take some time." So, don't hold your breath...