Another of the best books read in 2009.
Everyone knows that the OED stands for the "Oxford English Dictionary", of size as in Shea's subtitle. It is 20 thick volumes, with 59 million words.
The book is a letter-by-letter journal of Shea's reading of the OED, complete with samples of the more interesting words and definitions. Contains:
|If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on, and enjoy the efforts of a man who is in love with words. I have read the OED so you don't have to.|
I finished reading the OED at 2:17 p.m. on July 18, 2007.
Whether deserved or not, I got up and danced a small jig of triumph.
After I finished dancing my jig I sat there and debated whether or not I wanted to read the bibliography. I told myself that it was not part of the dictionary, and that furthermore, I'd already read the names of the authors and their books as I went through the dictionary. And it is only a partial bibliography. That night over dinner I told Alix that I was finished reading. She asked, "How was the bibliography?" ...
The next day I began reading again. ... The bibliography ... is about as exciting as reading the family tree of someone you do not know or care about at all.
But despite all this, Shea decided that the next book he will read will be ... yes! ... the OED:
|It is only after I finished reading the OED that I fully realized why I had begun the project in the first place. ... The OED exceeded all ... [my] hopes and expectations. It is the greatest story I've ever read.|
150 pounds of books; five boxes; 20 brand-new books. Shea shelves 19 of the 20, brews a strong cup of coffee, and starts with A-Bazouki. An interesting choice. I would probably start with the smallest section, no matter which volume. But then, I would be less convinced that I would ever complete reading the whole thing.
Lacking glasses and squinting to read, coupled with his coffee habit, one can see the trend line of Shea's pain path.
Still, Shea finds A-Bazouki to be a passionate undertaking:
|I find myself subject to the entire range of emotions and reactions that a great book will call forth from its reader. I chuckle, laugh out loud, smile wistfully, cringe, widen my eyes in surprise, and even feel sadness — all from the neatly ordered rows of words and their explanations. All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized.|
It takes him a mere 8 days to finish "The A's" and lists his favorites, with his own annotations, to encourage us to use them also. Examples:
"Substance or things that are washed away"
Examples: unplugged bath-water or a flooded riverbank.
"Full of trouble.
practically begging to be reintroduced to our vocabulary. It describes everything from your squalling children to the used car that your wife's brother managed to sell you last year."
"An anonymous, small-time writer"
Whoa! This is me and my 200 best friends!
"The warmth of the sun in winter"
How delightful that it comes "from the Latin apricus, meaning exposed to the sun", which reminds one of sun-colored apricots.
Shea's headaches become an active part of the story. Eye-test? Despite this, Shea claims:
|I find B wildly entertaining. ... The fact that the OED cares so much about words that almost everyone else happily ignores is one of its finest traits.|
"A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance ...
the path this word traveled to get from [bay-colored] horse to "
Examples: unplugged bath-water or a flooded riverbank.
"To annoy with missionaries.
This would be a delightful and whimsical word were it not for the fact that missionaries tend to be so irritating."
|Bouffage (n.)||"An enjoyable or satisfying meal."|
Shea now confesses:
To simply describe the OED as "large"
is akin to saying that the bubonic plague was "unpleasant".
It has 21,730 pages.
Fifty-nine million words.
... But it is not special simply because it is large.
It [is special because it] is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive.
But he goes on to comment on the expected level of readership, which of course makes the OED sound even more attractive to some readers ...
The OED frequently assumes a certain level of scholarship in its readers ...
the etymologies of words that come from
are written in
I do not find this terribly helpful,
as I do not read
Greek, ancient or modern.
Under the entry for syllogism,
the OED gives a nice, detailed definition and then proceeds
to give an example of a syllogism. Which would be illuminating if not for the fact
that the entire example is in Latin. ...
Given how hard the compilers of the OED worked to bring it to fruition, it seems unfair to object to putting in a little work to read it.
"'Bad art; a hurtful or mischievous art'. (OED)"
Originally for mechanisms but now also usable for cultural art.
[And therefore pretty useful around here. JZ]
|Coenaculous (adj.)||"'Supper-loving'. (OED)"|
|Colubriad (n.)||"'The epic of a snake' [OED]. I had no idea that snakes were so advanced that they had gotten around to composing epics."|
"Things to be believed; articles of faith ...
opposed to agenda, which are things to be done."
Shea introduces his friend Madeline, "the only person in the world who ever made her living solely from buying and selling dictionaries" and from whom he learned "the ineffable joy that can be had in pursuing the absurd".
|Dispester (v.)||"To get rid of a nuisance"|
|The original edition had four editors: James Murray as the Editor in chief, Henry Bradley, C.T. Onions, and W.A. Craigie. ... The current chief editor is John Simpson. ... The single most apparent presence is ... James Murray. ... His voice, always erudite, frequently cranky, and sometimes both, is almost immediately recognizable.|
|Elozable (adj.)||"Readily influenced by flattery"|
|Enantiodromia (n.)||"The adoption, by either a community or an individual, of beliefs opposite to those previously held."|
"To get something through flattery ...
one actually receives something from the flattery, making it all worthwhile", as opposed to "Toady, truckle, wheedle, cajole, fawn, blandish", and similar.
Shea explains why he prefers to read the paper copy instead of a copy on a computer.
|Faciendum (n.)||"Something that should be done."|
|Finifugal (adj.)||"Shunning the end of anything."|
|Fornale (v.)||"To spend one's money before it has been earned."|
The difficulties of reading at home. The difficulties of other locations. The eventual best basement and Shea's back-up career as a public shusher.
|Gulchin (n.)||"A little glutton."|
Shea gets glasses: "The headaches do not go away, but they become less severe".
"The flaw that precipitates the destruction of a tragic hero.
If you have any decency of soul, please do not use this word to refer to your own weakness for something such as chocolate."
Shea nurses a grudge against the i- prefix:
|It usually designates the past participle form of a word in Early Middle English, and apparently was quite the rage once upon a time, as the portion of the dictionary I am now reading is full of the damned things.|
"Unable to be washed away.
A word that suits a wide range of subjects, from bicycle grease to adultery.
also see: abluvion."
"Such things as impede progress.
Although impedimenta has most often been used in the sense of some concrete thing (such as baggage) that impedes progress, I prefer to think of it when I encounter any of the general things that slow one's progress through life, such as having a moral code of some sort."
|Inadvertist (n.)||"One who persistently fails to take notice of things."|
|Indesinence (n.)||"Want of proper ending."|
"A person who thinks himself inspired.
A simple rule of thumb: if someone is describing you with a noun that ends in -o, chances are, they are not paying you a compliment."
[Also pretty useful around here, especially if I am bemissionaried. JZ]
|Introuvable (adj.)||"Not capable of being found, specifically of books."|
How Shea's love of reading developed from childhood.
|Jentacular (adj.)||"Of or pertaining to breakfast."|
"A person who is bad luck.
Even though he or she is the first person tossed off the life raft when supplies run low, the jettatore is not in any way related to jettison or jetsam."
How Shea's fascination with words developed in childhood: an unfortunate incident with homonyms for horde. Issues of authority and non-authority on what is a word.
|Kakistocracy (n.)||"Government by the worst citizens."|
|Kankedort (n.)||"An awkward situation or affair."|
Shea reorganizes his dictionaries.
|Latibulate (v.)||"To hide oneself in a corner."|
"To wash with cow-dung and water.
I thought that perhaps the OED's editors had a different understanding of what the word wash means. I was moderately distressed when I looked ahead to the W's and found that they have the exact same idea of what it means as I do."
|I never begrudge the OED its moments of error or inexplicable oddness. The only shocking thing to me is how infrequently they occur. Quite honestly, I'm relieved when I see the OED do silly things on occasion. It humanizes the dictionary, and makes more apparent that this creation is the work of people, not machines. It is fallible, and all the more impressive for it.|
|Mataeotechny (n.)||"An unprofitable or useless science or skill."|
|Matutinal (adj.)||"Active or wide awake in the morning hours."|
Shea (like many of his readers, probably) asks:
|How in the world can I claim to speak English when I am ignorant of such an enormous amount of its vocabulary?|
"A dissolute and licentious person; a person who stays up late at night.
We have a needless superfluity of words that mean bounder, cad, libertine, wastrel, whoremonger, and so on. noceur is differentiated from the rest ... it seems to be the only one to specify that the rotter in question stays up late at night."
Shea realizes that he is now probably a Library Person:
The Library People are not an official or organized group,
but you can easily spot them by their noticeable lack of social skills
they too are often equipped with a large number of plastic bags [that] ... seem to hold old copies of newspapers, scraps of random paper, and other various and sundry tools of the marginally odd. ...
I caught a glimpse of myself in a glass door as I shuffled out of the library in search of more coffee. I saw a man with hair askew in all directions, an ink-stained shirt partially untucked, and unlaced shoes, who was talking to himself.
"A minor occasion.
If I manage to make it through an entire day without spilling coffee on myself, it is an occasionet. If I walk into a bookstore after not having visited it for several years and find that the same book I was thinking about buying the last time I visited is still there, it is an occasionet. Life is full of small occasions, and with their variety and small joys they somehow seem to be more worthy of celebration than large ones."
Wanting to know everything might generously be called a very bad idea. You might think you want to know everything, but as you learn more and more you will inevitably discover that there are many things out there that you will wish you did not know. If you do not believe me ... look up the work copremesis."
"Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word.
Of course, as soon as I learned this word I promptly forgot what it was, but this just provided me with the frustration of not being able to think of it, and then the satisfaction of once again finding it."
|Oxyphonia (n.)||"Excessive shrillness of voice."|
Shea likes finding errors in the OED:
Should you find an error just once in a great while,
it tells you the dictionary you are reading is a very good one indeed,
while at the same time you may congratulate yourself for having found an error in such a very good dictionary.
[F]inding errors in the OED (and calling attention to the fact that one has found them) is almost an entire subgenre in the field of lexicography. ...
[W]hat a powerful urge I have, when I find a mistake in the dictionary, to share it with someone.
The OED is being edited, starting and M and now being deep in the Ps (though not yet also minding its Qs).
"A defense [as Shea spells it. JZ] against bores."
[Something else that could be useful if I am bemissionaried. JZ]
"A person in love with his own opinion."
[For whom I need my parabore. JZ]
|Prend (n.)||"A mended crack."|
|Psithurism (n.)||"The whispering of leaves moved by the wind."|
Shea tries and fails to read out-of-doors to get a suntan. Grumbles about Q:
|Q is a boring letter ... The best thing to come out of Q is that during the reading of this letter I realize that most likely I will not lose my mind, perhaps because the section is so short.|
|Quisquilious (adj.)||"Of the nature of garbage or trash."|
"To make money in any way possible.
popularized by Sir Thomas Urquhart ... the sentiment is unmistakable and beautifully indelible:
'Those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets'."
Shea and Madeline attend the biannual conference of the Dictionary Society of North America. Joy.
|Rapin (n.)||"An unruly art student."|
|Recrudescence (v.)||"The reappearance of something, usually regarded as bad."|
|Redeless (adj.)||"Not knowing what to do in an emergency."|
"A thing that causes a change of feeling.
It could be be way he chews or the fact that he always interrupts you. It could be the embarrassing way that she laughs, or the fact that she snores loudly and will not admit it."
|Roorback (n.)||"A flash report that is circulated for political purposes."|
|Ruffing (n.)||"The stomping [perhaps the English say 'stamping' JZ] of the feet as a form of applause."|
No wonder Shea sounds daunted by S, as it:
stretches across four of the twenty volumes and takes up more than three thousand pages.
While the treatment of hard words certainly does matter, ... a much better indication of what makes a dictionary great is how it treats the most common words of the language. ...
Set is the largest entry in the print version of the OED ... You should read it. ... all sixty-thousand-odd words. ... It took me three attempts before I was able to read it [this entry] fully. ... silent tribute to all the lexicographers who slaved away for untold hours crafting this very long definition for this very short word.
|Scrouge (v.)||"To inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close."|
|Superarrogate (v.)||"To act with tremendous arrogance."|
Shea comments on how quickly the language is changing.
|Tacenda (n.)||"Things not to be mentioned; matters that are passed over in silence."|
Shea wades into the dreaded un-:
|Any un- word is judged to be self-explanatory if the un- modifies a word that is defined elsewhere in the dictionary and a reasonably conscientious reader can figure out its meaning. ... un- goes on for 451 pages ... at fifty pages I sink deep into a petulant rage and turn the pages violently ... 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.|
|Unbepissed (adj.)||"Not having been urinated upon; not wet with urine."|
Shea contemplates how much useless information he's "picked up through all this OED reading".
|Videnda (n.pl.)||"Things worth seeing; things that ought to be seen."|
"One who pays too much attention to words.
In the past I have been accused by various parties of paying too much attention to words. Which is true, I suppose; but what else do I have to pay attention to?"
|Something ... a bit off in W. ... I remembered that there was no such letter in ancient Latin, and so the vocabulary of W is overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in origin. The overall effect of this is fairly disconcerting — for more than twenty-thousand pages I'd been looking at I'd been looking at a word list of which about 80 percent was derived from Greek and Latin, and suddenly it all changed. It was almost as if I had picked up the wrong dictionary.|
"A person who drinks valiantly.
As entries occasionally are in the OED, this is wonderfully unclear."
This sounds like my favorite section:
|X ... forms by far the shortest section in the OED, only thirteen pages, short enough to read in an evening.|
Shea advises you how to get started on your own project to read a dictionary:
Stay away from grade school dictionaries,
Funk and Wagnalls dictionaries are great and so are
Century dictionaries. Nose around in a used book store and you'll
almost certainly find a nice old
Random House or a decent
Or just get yourself a set of the OED. Start looking up words for which you already know the meaning, and read how these words have been used over the ages. Start troving for words you've never heard of, one at a time. ...
And don't be surprised if you find that once you start leafing through the pages of this dictionary it suddenly grabs hold and it is unclear whether it is the book that won't let go of you, or you who won't let go of the book.
|Xenium (n.)||"A gift given to a guest."|
"Offspring that does not resemble its parents.
The reason that God invented paternity suits."
The general view of how many words are in the English language ranges from several hundred thousand to
If scientific terminology is included, the number swells to
If you add or exclude archaic words, or slang terms,
the number goes up or down.
Similarly, there is no real consensus on how many words an average speaker of the English language knows. ... I read the OED so that I might know what the words are for the things in the world that I had always thought to be unnamed. And perhaps if I know there is a word for something (such as the smell of newly fallen rain [read his book to discover what this is. JZ]) I will stop and pay more attention to it.
|Yepsen (n.)||"The amount that can be held in two cupped hands; also, the two cupped hands themselves."|
"Itchy; also itching with curiosity.
A Scottish and northern English dialectical word with a world of applications."
[Delightful to see a word from my childhood included here. JZ]
Shea reviews what has changed in his year-long project.
|Zabernism (n.)||"The misuse of military authority; bullying or aggression."|
|Zugzwang (n.)||"A disagreeable position in which a chess player is obliged to move but cannot do so without disadvantage."|
It will always be a word I remember fondly, as it is the very last word defined in the [hard copy] Oxford English Dictionary."