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

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Ammon Shea has lived the dream. It's a cracked, screwball dream shared by a select and certifiable collection of fools, but it's a dream all the same. Shea has read the entire 21,730 page Oxford English Dictionary and, more than that, he was paid to do it! The resulting book, Reading the OED, made me ferociously jealous in a way I think only word freaks can understand.

Shea is a man with an addiction: he reads dictionaries. For fun. All the time. He seems to abhor traditional books and favors those volumes which contain the words used to piece together your average novel. Despite his obvious enthusiasm (or obsession, depending on your point of view) for word books, he holds no illusions that his hobby is any more useful or useless than anything else. He's not apologetic about his lexicographic gluttony, nor does he lord it over the reader. It is this balance in tone which makes the book eminently readable.

What we are dealing with here is basically two books in one, a synthesis of both the OED and Shea's year-long quest to read it cover to cover. He leaves the history of the dictionary's creation to people like Simon Winchester, and instead focuses on the pure experience of reading. There is a brief introduction and conclusion, and in between are 26 chapters which follow a comfortable pattern. Each chapter is titled by a letter and opens with a short essay ruminating over everything from the author's failing eye-sight, to his fear of becoming one of the "library people," to explanations of how he first got into the whole dictionary reading business in the first place.

The bulk of the book lies in the word lists. After each chapter's essay, Shea lists some of the words he found most interesting in the letter at hand. These are not necessarily the most important words, or words you are likely to use in conversation. Indeed, he seems drawn to words which are so anachronistic as to be totally unwieldy, but which have a certain charm about them simply because they exist. Take, for example, "Cimicine," an adjective which means "Smelling like bugs." I mean, who knew there was a word for that? Who knew bugs smelled?

Rather than leave the reader in a constant state of "What the f—"?, Shea follows each word in his list with a brief observation or explanation. With a pleasant mixture of insight and dry humor, he helps to make the English language's most sizable book seem that much less frightening. Near and dear to my heart was the entry under "antisocordist" (An opponent of laziness or idiocy): "Along with cleaner of the Aegean stables and high school English teacher, being an antisocordist is one of the most thankless and hopeless jobs available."

Other truly fabulous words Shea pulls out include:

  • Assy (asinine)
  • Cellarhood (the state of being a cellar)
  • Conjugalism (the art of making a good marriage)
  • Constult (to act stupidly together)
  • Debag (to strip the pants from a person, either as a punishment or as a joke)
  • Gaum (to stare vapidly)
  • Goat-drunk (made lascivious by alcohol)
  • Gound (the gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes)
  • Happify (to make happy)
  • Hypergelast (a person who will not stop laughing)
  • Natiform (buttock-shaped)
  • Petrichor (the pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell)
  • Scrouge (to inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close)
  • Vocabularian (one who pays too much attention to words)

Considering the breadth of the subject matter, Reading the OED is a surprisingly slim volume. It is not, as the author is quick to point out, the sort of book which will increase your vocabulary for the better. Instead, Shea puzzles over and through a language filled with eccentricities which he is bound to love. The book paints a picture of English as a fluid entity, shaped by the time and tides of those who are constantly speaking it. Brought home throughout is the belief that the language is not half so serious as some people claim it to be, and that no matter how much you know of it, there is always more to read.

I remember the first time I encountered the OED. I was in college, in a lower level English class. After the professor explained the book, it's significance, and it's scope, I was flabbergasted. I remember distinctly thinking "What? All the words are in there?" While that's not precisely true, Reading the OED captures that feeling of awe and takes its readers on a guided tour of our language's most majestic work.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Truly a book for vocabularian hunters and gatherers. Thanks for a happifying review.