Ammon Shea loves dictionaries – especially the OED. He loves the OED so much, he read it – the whole thing, in its second edition: 21,730 pages with around 59 million words. It took him a year, full-time, and he wrote a book about it, titled Reading the OED (2008).
This is not a review, but it is a recommendation. Reading the OED will charm anyone who’s into dictionaries and words, especially unusual ones, or anyone curious about unusual hobbies and passions-slash-afflictions. (I did review Shea’s 2014 book Bad English, an entertaining historical snapshot of the English usage wars.)
When I said Shea loves dictionaries, I meant he really, really loves them. (This repetition of really is an example of epizeuxis, which is defined below.) Before the book came out, he moved house and brought 45 boxes: dictionaries filled 41 of them. As well as the 20-volume second edition of the OED, he owns the 13-volume 1933 edition, the four-volume supplement, the two- and ten-volume Shorter OEDs, the condensed-type edition, and ‘a random single-volume edition’. ‘Each has its own usefulness,’ he assures us. Certainly these things are relative, but I don’t doubt him for an instant.
So what was it like to read the biggest, most celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These qualities make it both a tremendous joy to read at some times and unbearably boring at others.’
How boring? Consider the un- prefix:
Un- goes on for 451 pages, and reading a 451-page list composed largely of self-explanatory words is only slightly more exciting than reading the phone book.
After ten pages of this, I think to myself, “This isn’t so bad.”
After twenty pages I begin entertaining thoughts of just skipping ahead to the end, reading the last un- word and pretending the whole thing never happened.
After fifty pages I sink deep into a petulant rage and turn the pages violently, occasionally tearing one, as though this whole enterprise was the invention of some cruel taskmaster other than myself.
By the time I’ve read one hundred pages I am near catatonic, bored out of my mind, and so listless I can’t remember why I wanted to read any of this in the first place.
But that’s a low point, unrepresentative of the overall affair, which Shea describes in genial and illuminating fashion: reading habits, locations, surprises, distractions, side-effects, and so on. He begins to feel he is ‘eating the alphabet’: 26 courses of letters, ‘each with its own distinctive flavor’. Q is disappointing, B ‘wildly entertaining’, in large part because of be-, a prefix that bewonders me too.
Needing a break before plunging into 3,000+ pages of S, he attends a dictionary conference where, he assumes, his peculiar project will be gratifyingly unremarkable, even appreciated. He gets talking to Sidney Landau, a distinguished lexicographer, who learns of his endeavour and tells him: ‘But that’s mad!’
At the end of each chapter, Shea selects a bunch of his favourite words – generally rare or obsolete – for each letter of the alphabet, followed by his definitions and comments. In turn, I’ve picked my 50 favourites of his favourites – though truthfully, my selection was often arbitrary; doing it again I could easily choose 50 others.
acnestis (n.): on an animal, the point of the back that lies between the shoulders and the lower back, which cannot be reached to be scratched
advesperate (v.): to approach evening
aerumnous (adj.): full of trouble [‘practically begging to be reintroduced to our vocabulary’, Shea notes]
backfriend (n.): a fake friend; a secret enemy
benedicence (n.): benevolence in speech
cellarhood (n.): the state of being a cellar (cf. tableity)
cimicine (adj.): smelling like bugs
constult (v.): to act stupidly together
dactylodeiktous (adj.) pointed at with a finger
discountenancer (n.): one who discourages with cold looks
elozable (adj.): readily influenced by flattery
epizeuxis (n.): the repetition of a word with vehemence and emphasis
fard (v.): to paint the face with cosmetics, so as to hide blemishes [‘I suspect there is a reason no one ever gets up from the table and says, “Excuse me while I go to the ladies’ room and fard.”’]
felicificability (n.): capacity for happiness
gound (n.): the gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes [‘the type of word I was unaware that I didn’t know, and yet it still felt like a relief when I discovered it’]
grinagog (n.): a person who is constantly grinning
hamartia (n.): the flaw that precipitates the destruction of a tragic hero
happify (v.): to make happy [this one gives me a happy, as they said in Buffy]
heterophemize (v.): to say something different from what you mean to say
impluvious (adj.): ‘wet with rain’ (Thomas Blount, Glossographia, 1656)
insordescent (adj.): growing in filthiness
jentacular (adj.): of or pertaining to breakfast
kankedort (n.): an awkward situation or affair
latibulate (v.): to hide oneself in a corner
letabund (adj.): filled with joy
malesuete (adj.): accustomed to poor habits
misdelight (n.): pleasure in something wrong
nefandous (adj.): too odious to be spoken of
neighbourize (v.): to be or act neighbourly
obganiate (v.): to annoy by repeating over and over and over and over
occasionet (n.): a minor occasion
petecure (n.): modest cooking; cooking on a small scale [‘Very few people eat in an epicurean fashion, yet many of them know what the word epicure means. A great many people eat in a simple fashion, and yet no one knows the word for this.’]
postvide (v.): to make plans for an event only after it has occurred [the antonym of provide, which originally meant ‘exercise foresight; make provision for the future’, per OED]
psithurism (n.): the whispering of leaves moved by the wind
quag (v.): to shake (said of something that is soft or flabby)
remord (n.): a touch of remorse; (v.) to remember with regret [‘when utilized as a verb, remord seems as though it can instantly render poetic any decision made in the past and subsequently regretted’]
residentarian (n.): a person who is given to remaining at table
scringe (v.): to shrug the back or shoulders from cold
scrouge (v.): to inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close
subtrist (adj.): slightly sad
sympatetic (n.): a companion one walks with [‘Discoveries like this one are what make reading the OED from cover to cover worthwhile.’]
tacenda (n.): things not to be mentioned; matters that are passed over in silence
unbepissed (adj.): not having been urinated on [‘Is it possible that at some time there was such a profusion of things that had been urinated on that there was a pressing need to distinguish those that had not?’]
undisonant (adj.): making the sound of waves
vicambulist (n.): one who walks about in the streets
vulpeculated (pa. pple.): robbed by a fox
well-woulder (n.): a conditional well-wisher
xenium (n.): a gift given to a guest
yesterneve (n.): yesterday evening
zyxt (v.): to see [‘It is the second-person singular indicative present form of the verb “to see” in the Kentish dialect and has obviously not been in common use for some time.’]
Tag yourself, as the kids say today.
You can order Reading the OED from your preferred bookstore via Random Penguin. Shea talks about the experience in this short interview: