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Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages Paperback – May 5, 2009
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Shea’s engougement (“irrational fondness”) for dictionaries led him to spend a year reading through all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, and he describes this account as “the thinking man’s Cliff Notes to the greatest dictionary in the world.” For each letter of the alphabet he provides a handful of his favorite words and his own humorous glosses, along with musings on the history of the OED, dictionaries in general, and his reading life. (He does most of his OED reading at the Hunter College Library and finds himself turning into one of those “Library People” as the year goes by.) He shares a number of words that, though they have fallen out of the common vocabulary, could be put to excellent use today: empleomania: “a manic compulsion to hold public office”; zabernism: “a misuse of military authority.” The book will happify (“make happy”) word and dictionary lovers, who will be able to read it in an hour or two, much less time than it takes to read the OED. --Mary Ellen Quinn --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Oddly inspiring...Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own."
-Nicholson Baker, New York Times Book Review
"Delicious...a lively lexicon."
-O, The Oprah Magazine
-William Safire, The New York Times Magazine
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Here are a few from Shea's collection:
Gobemouche (n.) One who believes anything, no matter how absurd
Hansardize (v.) To show that a person has previously espoused opinions differing from the ones he or she now holds.
Mawworm (n.) A hypocrite with pretensions of sanctity
Philodox (n.) A person in love with his own opinion
Psittacism (n.) The meaningless or mechanical repetition of words or phrases
Somnificator (n) One who induces sleep in others.
Unasinous (adj.) Being equal to another in stupidity
I enjoyed the book, though not quite as much as I had expected to. Shea is a genial guide, and one admires his stamina and enthusiasm. But ultimately the gimmick is a little flimsy to support an entire book. Shea's random musings are fascinating and quirkily charming, for the most part, and occasionally dull (way too much information about where he was doing his reading). His writing isn't bad, though it is a little clunky at times, and there are surprising lapses into imprecision:
"One of the things that has been painfully apparent as I read through the enormity of the English language is just how little of it I know."
Use of the skunked term 'enormity' distracts the reader unnecessarily here; and even if one allows the meaning of 'great size' or 'hugeness', the construction remains clumsy.
In another passage, he refers to the tribe of library denizens (people who spend their days in the New York Public Library reading room) as 'elusive', having told us a paragraph earlier that one of their defining characteristics is their tendency to occupy the same seats, day in, day out.
However, it seems unfair to come down on him too harshly for this. Each of us has surely had the experience of staring at a word on the page for too long, until it starts to look really bizarre, just a weird concatenation of random-looking syllables. Or just repeat any word out loud ten times -- by the time you're done it will seem like gibberish. Reading the OED could be enough to unhinge one altogether.
Ammon Shea deserves our admiration for having made it through intact. In this account of the journey he has not been completely successful in overcoming a fundamental difficulty, which is that the pleasures of the dictionary are generally private, idiosyncratic, and personal. Hardcore word lovers are likely to find more excitement in the dictionary itself; the rest of us can be grateful for this charming Cook's tour.
Of the words I learned from reading the book, among my favorites are:
lant: to add urine to ale, to make it stronger
yepsen: the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together
fleeten: having the color of skim milk.
As Shea correctly remarks, "It is unclear to me why this is such a repulsive word. But it is."