Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea

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:


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:

Abluvion (n.)
Aerumnous (adj.)
Anonymuncule (n.)
Apricity (n.)


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.


Bayard (n.)
Bemissionary (v.)
Bouffage (n.)


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 ancient Greek are written in Greek. 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.


Cacotechny (n.)
Coenaculous (adj.)
Colubriad (n.)
Credenda (


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.)


OED editors:

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.)
Enantiodromia (n.)
Expalpate (v.)


Shea explains why he prefers to read the paper copy instead of a copy on a computer.


Faciendum (n.)
Finifugal (adj.)
Fornale (v.)


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.)


Shea gets glasses: "The headaches do not go away, but they become less severe".


Hamartia (n.)


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.


Illutible (adj.)
Impedimenta (
Inadvertist (n.)
Indesinence (n.)
Inspirado (n.)
Introuvable (adj.)


How Shea's love of reading developed from childhood.


Jentacular (adj.)
Jettatore (n.)


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.)
Kankedort (n.)


Shea reorganizes his dictionaries.


Latibulate (v.)
Leep (v.)


Occasional surprises:

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.)
Matutinal (adj.)


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?


Noceur (n.)


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.


Occasionet (n.)
Omnisciturient (adj.)
Onomatomania (n.)
Oxyphonia (n.)


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).


Parabore (n.)
Philodox (n.)
Prend (n.)
Psithurism (n.)


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.)
Quomodocunquize (v.)


Shea and Madeline attend the biannual conference of the Dictionary Society of North America. Joy.


Rapin (n.)
Recrudescence (v.)
Redeless (adj.)
Resentient (n.)
Roorback (n.)
Ruffing (n.)


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.)
Superarrogate (v.)


Shea comments on how quickly the language is changing.


Tacenda (n.)


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.)


Shea contemplates how much useless information he's "picked up through all this OED reading".


Videnda (
Vocabularian (n.)


Shea finds:

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.


Wine-knight (n.)


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 Thorndike Barnhart.

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.)
Xenogenesis (n.)


Shea finds:

The general view of how many words are in the English language ranges from several hundred thousand to several million. If scientific terminology is included, the number swells to several million. 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.)
Yuky (adj.)


Shea reviews what has changed in his year-long project.


Zabernism (n.)
Zugzwang (n.)
Zyxt (v.)