Bruce's Reviews > Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea
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's review
Jan 16, 14

Recommended for: anyone and everyone who enjoys words and wordplay
Read in May, 2009

This will have to be a quickie; I’ve been involved in other projects and so sitting on this too long. Reading the OED marks the third of my personal OED triptych that began with the two Simon Winchester books, and I’ve gotta say, I absolutely loved this one. I would read more of this before bed each night and be constantly giggling, snorting, and otherwise laughing out loud. Can’t say how many, “Here, ya gotta listen to this’” I initiated with whomever was nearby whenever I had this book open, but suffice it to say there were a lot.

The plan of the book is pretty straightforward, and as such, it’s an extremely quick read. Ammon Shea begins each chapter with an explanatory anecdote or observation (usually tremendously witty), and then follows with a catalog of words from the letter of the OED appropriate to the chapter (fully alphabetized) that he feels are worthy of note and commentary. Also, a prologue and epilogue. Basically, this is a silly travelogue of the sort you might expect from a Douglas Adams or Michael Palin, only Shea’s riding the word train through the woolly lands of the English language (all 615,000 headwords of it as of the Second Edition, published in 1986). Is “irregardless” a word? It is if people use it in a relatively continuous and consistent fashion over time, since that’s what causes the language of Carroll, Heinlein, Shakespeare, and Twain to grow. Don’t see it in the dictionary? Well, ‘bondmaid’ was mislaid out of the first edition of the OED, an oversight that took all of 70 years to correct, given the editorial cycle. There will be many, many more headwords in the OED when the third edition is completed sometime within the next decade or so.

Who knew that there was a word (or even a need for one) to describe beer mixed with urine (to harshen the taste, the beverage to avoid here being “lant”)? And I think everyone within 5 miles of me is now tired of having me demonstrate the word “scouge” (the act of standing obnoxiously close to someone or leaning annoyingly on them in a way that screams out ‘overcrowded subway’) or explain that any time our parents group goes away for a collective weekend with the kids, a veritable storgy breaks out. Y’see, the awkward-sounding “storge” means “the affection a parent feels for his/her progeny,” hence my neologistic preference to extend it lexicographica-logically to “storgy.”

Oh, and by the way, that reciprocal love a child feels for a parent is “antipelargy.” As Shea puts it, “there is, to the best of my knowledge, no word to describe the irritation that either parents or children feel for the other.” (p. 10) How snarky is that? (Not that it matters, as following this briefest of mentions here I won’t be using such a dorky word as ‘antipelargy’ anytime soon.)

I’m going to leave you with one short quote from the book that I think neatly sums up just why I found practically every page so gosh-darned hilarious. Shea gets to the letter ‘U’ and casually mentions to his dictionary-editing girlfriend that he will soon encounter words beginning with the prefix “un-.” She bemoans this as horrifically tedious reading, since the meanings of nearly all such words are intuitively obvious (basically, not followed by the definition of the prefix-modified word). Here’s Shea, at pp. 186-7:
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….

I am convinced there must be some other use for this section of dictionary aside from it being an extraordinarily thorough scholarly record of some small corner of the alphabet…. It could be used in much the same fashion that some convenience stores use Muzak, blasting it into their parking lots at night in order to repel idle teenagers….

[I]t is at times such as this… that the true appeal of reading the dictionary makes itself known. It’s not that I’m a great fan of boring activities, but they do make the rest of life that much more special when they come alive.

Now that I’ve read Shea’s one-year odyssey through 21,730 pages of alphabetized English, it’s impossible for me to unlove this writer.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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John Since you like these types of book, you might want to add A. J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All (reading the Encyclopedia Britannica) to your TBR pile?

Bruce Will do, thanks for the tip!

message 3: by Jim (new)

Jim 21,000-odd pages in 365 days. Sounds doubleplusungood (to steal from Orwellian newspeak).

Bruce You would think! But he really seemed to get a kick out of it. Takes all kinds, I suppose.

Incidentally, I have to wholeheartedly second John's suggestion. In its own way, Jacobs' book is just as good as Shea's.

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