Three short stories of Luck, one of the least and greatest invisible entities that earthlings know and often believe in. (And, in service of the short bursts of LUCK, some long thoughts and related personal history.)

First, a few definitions.

My father and mother gave me, upon my graduation from College, an OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I am touched that they were listening when I described my fascination with the etymologies of words that were uniquely available in this old 20 volume dictionary, more than one hundred years in the making. Here is a bit of background from a perusal of Wikipedia.

[Circa 1860] The dictionary began as a Philological Society project of a small group of intellectuals in London (and unconnected to Oxford University):[13]:103–4,112 Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge [grandson of the famous poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and “technically” the first editor of what ultimately became the OED], and Frederick Furnivall, who were dissatisfied with the then-current English dictionaries. In June 1857, they formed an “Unregistered Words Committee” to search for words that were unlisted or poorly-defined in current dictionaries. …On 7 January 1858, the Society formally adopted the idea of a comprehensive new dictionary.[13]:107–8 Volunteer readers would be assigned particular books, copying passages illustrating word usage onto quotation slips.

Did you know that there were NO standard spelling dictionaries of any kind in the English language until 1604.

Before Samuel Johnson’s two-volume A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 and considered the most authoritative and influential work of early English lexicography, there were other early English dictionaries: more than a dozen had been published during the preceding 150 years.

Schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, authored “A Table Alphabeticall,” considered by Wikipedia the first single language dictionary.

Previously, in 1538, Sir Thomas Elyot, High Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and representative of the borough of Cambridge in Parliament from 1539 to 1542, published a Latin/English dictionary dedicated to Henry VIII.

As a prose writer, Elyot enriched the English language with many new words. In 1536 he published The Castell of Helth, a popular treatise on medicine, intended to place a scientific knowledge of the art within the reach of those unacquainted with Greek. This work, though scoffed at by the faculty, was appreciated by the general public, and speedily went through seventeen editions. The first edition copy of his Latin Dictionary, the earliest comprehensive dictionary of the language, resides in the British Museum, and contains an autograph letter from Elyot to Cromwell, to whom it originally belonged.

Elyot received little reward for his services to the state, but his scholarship and his books were held in high esteem by his contemporaries.

Thomas Elyot was a supporter of the humanists ideas concerning the education of women, writing in support of learned women, he published the “Defence of Good Women.” In this writing he supported Thomas More and other humanist authors’ ideals of educated wives who would be able to provide intellectual companionship for their husbands and educated moral training for their children.

Around this time in history, Henry VIII abandoned his role in the Roman Catholic Church as “Defender of the Faith” and  rewrote laws so that he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and in the process initiate the Protestant Church.

The title “Defender of the Faith” was granted on 11 October,[1]1521, by Pope Leo X to King Henry VIII of England. His wife Catherine of Aragon was also a Defender of the Faith in her own right.[2] The title was conferred in recognition of Henry’s book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments), which defended the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. 

Following Henry’s decision to break with Rome in 1530 and establish himself as head of the Church of England, the title was revoked by Pope Paul III (since Henry’s act was regarded as an attack on “the Faith”) and Henry was excommunicated. However, in 1544,[citation needed]the Parliament of England conferred the title “Defender of the Faith” on King Henry VIII and his successors, now the defenders of the Anglican faith, of which they (except the Catholic Mary I) remain the Supreme Governors (formally above the Archbishop of Canterbury as Primate).

King James V of Scotland was granted the title of Defender of the Faith by Pope Paul III on 19 January 1537, symbolizing the hopes of the papacy that the King of Scots would resist the path that his uncle, Henry VIII, had followed.[3][4] James’ father, James IV, had been granted the title of “Protector and Defender of the Christian Faith” by Pope Julius II in 1507.[5] However, neither title ever became part of the full style of the monarch of Scotland.

It would seem like all of this has nothing to do with LUCK, right? Yet, I had to wait a long time to consult a copy of the OED, so I followed my nose to these stories, which have always fascinated me. Famous Henry VIII had to execute his wife to get a divorce. That fact has always blown my mind. Yet, in the discussion of sexual equality, it is one of the foundational issues. If women are sexually equal (or even superior) to men, then what? Of course, it is all mixed up in controlling birth and wealth, and passing peace, prosperity, and property on to heirs in future generations. So it is no surprise that these are the big concerns of powerful people as they wane in their creative years.

Starting from this moment and staring forward into the future, the past was settled in the past, and the issues we are considering today are not quite the same ones which were settled back then. The relationship of Words, Power, Morality, and Faith are all mixed up in the Luck wave of history.

Divorce is a major issue among people in religious communities. The world we know today took many turns due to a simple matter of Luck. The arranged marriage of British Monarch Henry VIII and  Queen of France Catherine of Aragon gave ruling powers to England instead of the Emperor of France.  These warring countries traded queens for peace so that kings would not try to conquer their neighbors, and the universal church inherited from the fallen Empire of Rome was meant to be the referee. Giving birth to a male heir ensured that a man could rule the roost during those years of declining power, while a woman in this role would inspire rivalry and war. Look at the sagas of Queen Elizabeth or any number of examples of women as head of state.

Civilized people with very high moral thoughts were not always able to prevail in circles of power and influence, and sometimes those tragedies changed the course of human history. As luck would have it, we inherit the world as it is today. And yet, we are also authors of our own stories of luck.

I must share a few more dictionary factoids discovered as I perused Wikipedia while awaiting the download of my electronic version of the epic historical OED. For those unfamiliar with this voluminous reference, I encourage you to read more on the wiki page for the Oxford English Dictionary. Suffice to say, this work of history on the origins of English words had many contributors engaged for decades.

The first OED dictionary fascicle was published on 1 February 1884—twenty-three years after Coleridge’s sample pages. The full title was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society; the 352-page volume, words from A to Ant, cost 12s 6d.[16]:251 The total sales were a disappointing 4,000 copies.[19]:169

By early 1894 a total of 11 fascicles had been published, or about one per year: four for A–B, five for C, and two for E.[15]   [After firing the production manager who was harassing the scholars about the costs and deadline extensions] the [Oxford University] editors felt that the dictionary would have to grow larger, it would; it was an important work, and worth the time and money to properly finish.

Neither [principal authors] Murray nor Bradley lived to see it. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A–D, H–K, O–P and T, nearly half the finished dictionary; Bradley died in 1923, having completed E–G, L–M, S–Sh, St and W–We. By then two additional editors had been promoted from assistant work to independent work, continuing without much trouble. William Craigie, starting in 1901, was responsible for N, Q–R, Si–Sq, U–V and Wo–Wy.[15]:xix Whereas previously the OUP had thought London too far from Oxford, after 1925 Craigie worked on the dictionary in Chicago, where he was a professor.[15]:xix[16] The fourth editor was Charles Talbut Onions, who, starting in 1914, compiled the remaining ranges, Su–Sz, Wh–Wo and X–Z.[20] In 1919–1920 J. R. R. Tolkien was employed by the OED, researching etymologies of the Waggle to Warlock range;[21] later he parodied the principal editors as “The Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” in the story Farmer Giles of Ham.[22]

The dictionary’s latest, complete print edition (second edition, 1989) was printed in 20 volumes, comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages. The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set, which required 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the OED3in sequence starting from M, the longest entry became make in 2000, then put in 2007, then run in 2011.[9][10][11]

Volunteer readers would be assigned particular books, copying passages illustrating word usage onto quotation slips.

One prolific [OED] reader, W. C. Minor, was a criminal lunatic.[13]:xiii Minor, a Yale University trained surgeon and military officer in the U.S. Civil War, was confined to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a man in London. Minor invented his own quotation-tracking system allowing him to submit slips on specific words in response to editors’ requests. The story of Murray and Minor later served as the central focus of The Surgeon of Crowthorne (US title: The Professor & the Madman[13]), a popular book about the creation of the OED.

So, there you have it. To get this definition of Luck, it took far more than luck!

The OED Definition of LUCK

luck lʌk noun. l15.

  • 1 The action or effect of casual or uncontrollable events; the sum of fortuitous events affecting (favourably or unfavourably)a person’s interests or circumstances; a person’s apparent tendency to have good or ill fortune; the imagined tendency of chance to bring a succession of (favourable or unfavourable) events. l15.
    • b A piece of good, bad , etc., fortune.m16–e17.
    • c Chance regarded as a cause or bestower of good or ill fortune. (Sometimes personified: cf. Lady Luck s.v. lady noun 5a.) m16.
    • d An action or event regarded as bringing or presaging good or bad fortune. e20.

    Shakes. Com. Err. I have but lean luck in the match. J. Davidson I don’t allow it’s luck and all a toss. E. O’Neill I’ve tried to keep things going in spite of bad luck.c I. Fleming As luck would have it, there were no vacancies and I had to turn him down. Evening Telegraph (Grimsby) Valentinos Joy…had luck on his side.d OED You should never put boots on the table: it’s bad luck.

  • 2 Good fortune; success, prosperity, or advantage coming by chance rather than as the consequence of merit or effort. l15.
    • b An object, esp. an heirloom, on which the prosperity of a family etc. supposedly depends. l18.
    • c A piece of good fortune. Also, a lucky find. Scot. m19.

    V. Woolf What luck to find you alone. M.Fitzherbert For an amateur journalist it was a great piece of luck. Z. Tomin She had had all the luck. She had never had to get her hands dirty.


bad luck!, bad luck to you!, bad luck to it!, etc. colloq.: expr. ill will, disappointment, etc.

beginner’s luck : see beginner 2.

devil’s own luck uncannily good luck.

down on one’s luck in a period of ill fortune.

for luck to bring good luck.

good luck!, good luck to you!, good luck to it!, etc. colloq.: expr. goodwill, encouragement, etc.

hard luck worse fortune than one deserves.

ill luck : see ill adjective & adverb.

in luck fortunate, enjoying good luck.

just my luck, just his luck, just our luck, etc.,typical of my, his, our, etc., bad luck.

luck of the draw: expr. resignation at the chance outcome of events etc.

nigger luck : see nigger adjective & noun.

no such luck colloq. unfortunately not.

one’s luck is in luck is on one’s side.

out of luck having bad luck, in misfortune.

press one’s luck, push one’s luck colloq. take undue risks.

ride one’s luck colloq. let favourable events take their course, not take undue risks.

Saltash luck

the best of British luck : see British adjective 2.

the luck of the Irish very good luck.

tough luck : see tough adjective.

try one’s luck make a venture or attempt.

worse luck colloq. unfortunately.


luck-money, luck-penny

  • a a piece of money given or kept for luck;
  • b hist. a certain sum required by local custom to be returned by the seller to the buyer, esp. in the sale of livestock.

ORIGIN: Low German luk aphet. from geluk, in Middle Dutch ghelucke (Dutch geluk) = Middle High Germangelücke (German Glück good fortune, happiness), fromge- y- + base of unkn. origin. Prob. orig. a gambling term.

luck lʌk verb intrans. lME.

  • 1 Chance, happen; turn out well, ill , etc. Also impers. in (it) lucks etc. obsolete exc. dial.lME.
    • b Be lucky; prosper, succeed. obsoleteexc. dial. l16.
  • 2
    • a Foll. by upon, up on : chance to find or meet with. colloq. l17.
    • b Foll. by into, on to : acquire by good fortune. colloq. m20.
  • 3 Foll. by out: achieve success or advantage by good luck, esp. in a difficult or adverse situation. Also, experience (extreme) bad luck; be killed. N. Amer. colloq. m20.

ORIGIN: Perh. from Dutch lukken, formed as luck noun.