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Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

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An obsessive word lover's account of reading the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover. "I am reading the OED so you don't have to. If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on..."

So reports Ammon Shea, the tireless, word-obsessed, and more than slightly masochistic author of Reading the OED, the word lover's Mount Everest, the OED has enthralled logophiles since its initial publication 80 years ago. Weighing in at 137 pounds, it is the dictionary to end all dictionaries. In 26 chapters filled with sharp wit, sheer delight, and a documentarian's keen eye, Shea shares his year inside the OED, delivering a hair-pulling, eye-crossing account of reading every word, and revealing the most obscure, hilarious, and wonderful gems he discovers along the way.

223 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Ammon Shea

8 books43 followers
Ammon Shea is the author of two previous books on obscure words, Depraved English and Insulting English (written with Peter Novobatzky). He read his first dictionary, Merriam Webster's Second International, ten years ago, and followed it up with the sequel, Webster's Third International.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 354 reviews
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
Want to read
January 23, 2013
- Have you come across a book called Reading the OED, Professor?

- Yes, I believe I leafed through it in bookshop once. Frightfully vulgar little volume. Do pass the port, there's a good fellow.

- By all means. And what fault did you find with it, if I may ask?

- Oh, the author attempted to entertain his readers with words he had found in the Oxford English, which he apparently believed were unusual and obscure. Some of his choices were, how shall I put it, a little surprising to me.

- Would you care to give us a few examples?

- Let me see. To begin with, "tricoteuse" and "introuvable"...

- He is writing for people who don't know French then.

- I am told that such people exist. "Zugzwang"...

- Not for people who know German either. Or chessplayers.

- Not ones who have ever read a chess book, at any rate. "Opsigamy"...

- I must confess I don't know that word.

- But I'm sure you can guess its meaning.

- Let me see. Opsi... that sounds familiar. The rabbit in Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration?

- You're getting warmer, young fellow.

- "Opsi" is short for "opsimath", one who learns late in life. Hence "opsigamy" is late marriage.

- Well done, sir! More port?

- Don't mind if I do, actually. Rather good, isn't it?

- Better than that dreadful book, anyway. Cheers!

- Cheers!
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,305 followers
January 13, 2009
Ammon Shea read the OED "so that you don't have to". This account of the experience has one chapter for each letter of the alphabet; each chapter is roughly equally split between a selection of words and definitions and Shea's musing on some aspect of dictionaries, lexicography, or the logistics of his current project, many of which have to do with finding good places to do his reading.

I enjoyed the book, but not nearly 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. Ammon's random musings are fascinating, quirkily charming, or dull in roughly equal measure. 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. So that it's hard to banish the thought that, rather than read his book, it might be more fun to use the time to browse the dictionary itself.
511 reviews3 followers
October 20, 2008
I'm still reading this, but give it 5 stars in advance! This is the best fun I've had in a long, long time. This guy reads dictionaries for fun, and read the Oxford English Dictionary in one year (21,730 pages). He's grumpy and hilarious. He starts each chapter (by letter: "A", "B", etc.) with a description of something--like "Library People"--people who hang out in libraries and how he's afraid he's turning into one. But the best is the random list of words at the end of each chapter and his comments...like, "Fard: (v) to paint the face with cosmetics,so as to hide blemishes; I suspect there is a reason no one ever gets up from the table and says, 'Excuse me while I go to the ladies room and fard. It seems to be very difficult to make a four-letter word that begins with 'f' sound like an activity that is polite to discuss at the dinner table." My favorite words so far are: "jocoserious" (half joking, half serious), "nod-crafty" (nodding ones' head wisely while someone is talking), and "happify" (to make happy).
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,894 reviews1,927 followers
January 6, 2011
The Book Report: Ammon Shea, whom I suspect of autodidacticism, was a New York City furniture mover and dicitionary freak living with his recovering lexicographer girlfriend when he conceives of a way to get paid for sitting in a corner and reading: He will, in one year, read the entire 20-volume print version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and report on the experience of doing so, what lexicological gems he found while doing so, and what the experience does to his sneaking-up-on-forty body. (Nothing good, as one can imagine.) I strongly suspect he thought this wheeze up so someone would buy him the whole thousand-dollar kit and kaboodle. I have no evidence to support this conjecture, just a little quiver in my antennae. What the heck, he'll never see this review, so where's the harm?

My Review: I confess: I am such a nerd that, at age 11, I set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica (1947 edition) that my mother prized above all her other books. Originally, I approached the task sternly alphabetically. I understood very little of what I was reading, so I abandoned this approach and instead began jumping around to cross-references as entries confused, excited, angered me; I learned a lot more that way, and before six months were out, I got my first major dictionary (Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1966) so I would stop pestering my mother to tell me what words she'd never heard before meant.

My mother, my sisters, and my First Great Love all made gentle fun of me at first, but mostly left me to get on with it because it was *such* a relief that I no longer wanted to talk only about cars. The charm of this, inevitably, waned as I discoursed upon late Imperial/early Republican China's woes; motifs in Greek painting; the apple and its manifold wonders (though my mother, the foodie, was more willing to listen to this than most of the other stuff) (oh, and that last is still a source of abiding fascination to me), etc etc. Soon I faced open hostility as I approached, big brown volume in hand, gleam of joy in newfound knowledge lighting my face; I learned quickly how very little fondness most people have for someone smarter than they are, better informed than they are, and unafraid to show it.

So imagine my rapturous surprise when my eye lit on this book in the bargain bin! (Sorry, Mr. Shea, but if it's any consolation, it's from the third printing. I owe you a cup of coffee.) There exists in the world a bigger nerd than I am! W00t!

I read the book with a delight that's rare, the eager and guilt-laden urgency to see how far *this* big ol' nerd will go out of his cave. It was an impressive distance. He's a very, very curmudgeonly person, at least as he portrays himself; and he's unafraid of social opprobrium, which is laudable in a smartypants.

But in the end, much as I liked reading his alphabetical listings of the weird and wonderful discoveries, I was left wanting something more than the brief introductory essays in each letter provided: I wanted some synthesis, which he implies he did; he mentions several times compiling lists of synonyms and antonyms and words that define the same concept in slightly different ways, which lists and definitions I really wish had been in the book.

I suspect this is the work of his editor, who then is proof of my contention that no editor is always right, and occasionally should be fought. Oh well. Maybe next book.

Still and all, minor quibbles aside, this is a wonderful read and should be read ASAP by word freaks everywhere; and also by those socially inept folk in need of reassurance that, somewhere in New York City, there is a man who can give them a solid run for their awkward money. Recommended.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,178 reviews48 followers
November 18, 2012
This book is so good! It's the experience of Ammon Shea as he spent one year reading the OED. He has a great sense of humor. This book is full of stories about his experiences reading the dictionary mixed with stories of his life not to mention definitions of unusual words we've never heard of.

Two of these words I have already started saying in my daily life:

Prend - noun - a mended crack. Every Sunday I now look at my Sunday tea cup - the one from Colorado Capital Bank that shattered into several pieces when I dropped a juice glass on top of it (which also shattered into several pieces) and which my husband lovingly glued back together - and I say "Look at all these prends".

Inadvertist - noun - One who persistently fails to take notice of things. Can you say "clueless"? I've been using this word each morning during rush hour when clueless motorists cut me off and then drive 15 miles an hour under the speed limit talking on their cell phones. The world is full of inadvertists who inadvertantly do stupid things.

Then there are other words that I would love to say but I know I won't remember:

Apricity - noun - The warmth of the sun in winter.

Hypergelast - noun - A person who will not stop laughing.

And did you know disrespect was used as a verb hundreds of years ago? "He's disrespectin' me" is nothing new.

One thing that made this book delightful is not only that the author lists all these great words, he makes comments after all these words. Some of his comments made me laugh so much I cried. Example:

Unbepissed - adjective - Not having been urinated on; unwet with urine. "Who ever thought there was an actual need for such a word? Is it possible that at some time there was such a profusion of things that HAD been urinated on that there was a pressing need to distinguish those that had not?"

When the author went to attend the biannual conference of the Dictionary Society of North America I was actually jealous. What fun! I, too, want to read a dictionary and talk about words with other like-minded geeky souls. Then again, maybe I need a break from all of this. The other day I was reading the comics in the paper and got to "Mutts" and thought - hmmm, probably short for mutation. That's probably from the Latin word mutare meaning "to change". I made all that up but the sad thing was that when I checked the internet, I was actually right. . . .

Maybe I should read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition (1910) and then write a book about that. . . .it's really considered literature with contributors such as John Muir and Bertrand Russell. Well, maybe not. I might end up, as Ammon Shea ends up, with stronger prescription eyesight and chronic backaches.

Highly recommended for all you other word geeks out there.
Profile Image for Grace.
690 reviews1 follower
October 19, 2008
The book read like a travel diary, detailing Ammon Shea's travels through the approximately 21,000 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. He begins each chapter (each one dedicated to a letter of the alphabet) with interesting and sometimes insightful commentary about libraries, dictionary conventions, or his failing eye sight before delving into the words that piqued his interest, followed by a brief commentary on the word. I now know that the gunk in the corner of my eye is called gound. My boyfriend balters on the dance floor. I also know that there is a verb meaning to shake (as in something soft of flabby)and that word is quag. I pulled this book out of my purse while waiting my boyfriend and I were waiting for a table at a restaurant and it entertained us for the approximately 25 minute wait and gave us something to talk about until the appetizer arrived.

It was a quick read because of its style as well as its length (less than 230 pages). I felt somewhat cheated when I finally got to the end though because I didn't think Ammon Shea gave the topic as well as the feat justice. The guy read the OED in a year. He read every word in the English dictionary, followed by every usage in existence, and its etymology. This is a dream of mine. But his enthusiasm, his ambition, his struggles, and his successes barely shone through. Overall, I can't help but think of it is as a fluff read, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because it might get more people interested in words that wouldn't have been interested in a more "heavy hitting" book.
Profile Image for Melody Schwarting.
1,440 reviews82 followers
April 26, 2022
Ammon Shea read the Oxford English Dictionary in one year and managed to get a book out of it. He is an extreme nerd, and I resonated with his extreme nerdiness, though I would not give up an entire year to reading the OED. I prefer encountering words in the wild, as it were, then visiting them in their lexical zoos to learn more. It's no wonder that Shea thinks differently, since a formative book for him is Gerald Durrell's Three Tickets to Adventure, about Durrell's exploits in bringing live specimens to zoos. Durrell's formative book for me is My Family and Other Animals, in which the young, intrepid Gerald observes animals in the wild. Yet, Shea and I share a love for the corpulent blessing that is the OED. This isn't the first book I've read about it (at least the fourth) and it won't be the last (Shea's bibliography has given me even more titles).

Shea structures the chapters by letter, of course, and opens each section with a memoir-y reflection on his life, or the OED, or attending the Dictionary Society of North America conference and getting weird looks from lexicographers for reading the OED. Some parts were more memorable than others. The words that popped out to him from each section are interesting, some of them very familiar to me and many not. ("Moreish," for example, is a word familiar to me from the Great British Bake-Off, which premiered a few years after this book was published.) He doesn't note when the words are obsolete or rare, so you will have to look them up yourself to see if they are worth adding to your idiolect.

Overall, a fun, light read for word nerds and lovers of lexicons.
Profile Image for Aravindakshan Narasimhan.
74 reviews45 followers
Currently reading
January 14, 2021
From the book:

Ambidexter (n.) A person who accepts bribes from both sides.

To be perfectly fair to ambidexter, this definition is not the only one the OED lists. Ambidexter also refers to a person who is unusually dextrous, or who is two-faced in a general sense. However, the earliest instance of the word, in a book from 1532 titled Use of Dice Play, employs it to mean “one who takes bribes indiscriminately.”

End of quotes.

Though this trait in the human is caricatured in popular media in multiple instances (read local cinema), I thought humans - generally - were loyal to their paymasters, working in a crude logic of reasoning and stood by them as much as possible.

By indiscriminately soiling your hands from both quarters (that is simultaneously from both parties) one is required to engage in an altogether different level of scheming!

Perhaps "Ambischemer" would be a good associate word for Ambidexter (of old usage, lest I forget to stress again)

As I am thinking about this, I guess Belmondo, from Melville's Le Doulos, is the best example of an Ambischemer. Though I feel I won't be able to go in exact detail as to how it is - since I watched it a long time back, and it is filled with too many details, that if one misses a single point the whole edifice will fall like a seneca trap.

But still, if someone has recently watched it; should know that he is a spy who badly yearns to lead a normal life. That he wants to undo himself - his identity.

So he uses to his advantage - both - "his gangster friend, and police", and construes an amazing reasoning around the turn of events (which exemplifies the power of narration) - that he convinces both his friend and unscrews himself from police's lock. But alas, one should know reasoning won't suffice when the person you are persuading is facing a life threatening situation.

My knowledge of history and political history is quite limited, perhaps someone who is well read of these disciplines can come up with real-life examples of Ambidexters and Ambischemers.

P.S: My OED ( a revised second edition, 2005) doesn't have the noun form, but rather the adjective "Ambidextrous" which we all know, and mentions the origin of the word from ambidexter, from late Latin, as ambi - both sides and dexter - right handed. Interestingly, the online webster dictionary says it is obsolete to use ambidexter as one who is adept at using both hands, and mentions - the definition under this post - as the normal usage.

Going back to it roots?

P.P.S: There is no word called Ambischemer.
Profile Image for Robert.
93 reviews
January 24, 2010
I suppose I should start this review by admitting that I know Ammon Shea. I went to school with Ammon Shea. I've gone to the same gym as Ammon Shea. (And, Senator, you're no Ammon Shea.)

(With apologies to Lloyd Bentsen, but no apologies to Dan Quayle.)

But, even without knowing Ammon, I would have found this book fascinating. He read the entire Oxford English Dictionary! All 20 volumes! 21,730 pages!

The book is both an honest account of the experience of reading such a huge work (including headaches, large amounts of coffee, and the difficulty of finding a good place to read), and a sampling of some of the wonderful, odd word gems that one can find in such a huge dictionary.

Each chapter has two parts. The first part will tell you about the experience of reading the OED, or give you more information about the author, or tell you about some of the interesting people he knows. (Like Madeline, who I keep thinking of has his dictionary "pusher".) I found myself thinking of these portions as a travelogue of sorts: telling you about his trek across the vast lexicographic landscape, and the interesting inhabitants he met in his travels.

The second part is a list of words he found interesting. To continue the travelogue analogy, I suppose these would be a sampling of the curious items he found in his travels, and brought back with him. Each word comes with a definition (most of them courtesy of Ammon), and his ruminations about the word. And this is where it gets really fun. The ruminations are erudite, funny, and often seem to show that Ammon is in touch with his inner curmudgeon (and we can all be thankful for that).

One of my favorite sections starts with the definition of "Goat-drunk" ("Made lascivious by alcohol"), which Ammon (bless him) follows up with the full list of 8 types of drunkenness, as enumerated by Thomas Nash, which proves once again that in the olde dayes, they did more than just sit around, read the bible, and die of plague.

As I look over this review, I realize that I'm not doing the book justice. It's funny, it's clever, it's interesting. I'd recommend it for anybody who likes words.
Profile Image for Bruce.
439 reviews73 followers
January 16, 2014
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.
Profile Image for J.
1,383 reviews140 followers
June 7, 2016
Weird and fantastical in its own right, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED is about one man, obsessed with words and dictionaries, and his decision one day to purchase and read from cover to cover the entirety of the 21,730 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Luckily for his eyes, though they may have been strained, that he chose the old school route and stuck to the last printed edition of the landmark dictionary. The OED’s online version is considerably longer and a computer monitor considerably more taxing on the eyes.

Part semi-biography, part history, and part minuscule dictionary in its own right, Shea’s book is broken up into twenty eight chapters, one for each letter and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is prefaced by the on-going story of Shea’s tribulations in reading this massive work including the mice infested lower floor of a college library where he chooses to sit for eight hours a day reading the dictionary (oh, to have the kind of life where I could do that for one solid year without worry regarding rent), brief accounts of various dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson’s and Noah Webster’s, how freakish Shea and his quixotic task appeared even to lexicographers at a gathering of such, and various stories from his life. A favorite in the last category was an exchange he had with his high school English teacher who, in a game of homonyms, refused to accept whored for hoard.

At times I preferred Shea’s fully developed chapter devices more than his list of definitions, which he strove to keep Bierce-ishly short and witty, and at other times the words chosen from among the whole were just too deliciously funny. There is a curmudgeonly strain running through his definitions, which aren’t typically full blown but just a quick-bite version of his favorite usages. A word such as happify is sure to do just what it appears its definition might be were you to drop it on a word lover you know.

Other such pleasures can be found in words such as advesperate (to approach evening), bully-writer (a cruel critic), assy (asinine), back-friend (the original frenemy), conspue (to spit on someone with contempt, leading to the obvious question, is there another way to spit on someone?), gove (to stare stupidly), gound (the gunk in the corners of your eyes each morning), fleshment (first flush of excitement from an initial success), lant (to add urine to ale to make it stronger – yeah, right), the related unbepissed (having not as-of-yet been soaked with urine), misdelight (pleasure in something wrong), kakistocracy (government by the worst citizens, see Bush Administration), wine-knight (a person who drinks valiantly), goat drunk (made lascivious by alcohol), and lastly, the dictionary’s final term, zyxt (to see).

The entirety of Shea’s book is filled with delights such as these and it is lovely to have for your own enjoyment such a delightful list of obscurities. I myself own the two-volume OED where each single sheet has four near-microscopic pages laid out on it (the package comes replete with magnifying glass). This was a gift from The Wife, a gift she has come to regret at times because apart from its usefulness in wiling away the hours and learning things like the origin of the term cakewalk, the OED is also a pedant’s greatest weapon. Games of Scrabble or other types of word-based entertainments can come shrieking to a sniffy halt when definitions are challenged. As a devotee of British novels, I can’t say chuffed I am when a particularly well-chosen bit of English slang is challenged as not cricket.

Nevertheless, Shea’s book is that perfect bathroom/guestroom book. The kind of thing you can pick up and read at any point in its entirety and never quite feel like you’re missing out on the action, a book you can return to when you’re feeling idle or when little else on your bookshelf is appealing. Much in that way, if you’re a lover of dictionaries, Shea has created something like a very popular version of a browser's dictionary that will appeal to lovers and the indifferent alike.
Profile Image for Claire Hall.
64 reviews11 followers
March 30, 2009
Ammon Shea has done something most of us will never do--read the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover in a year, all twenty volumes and 21,730 pages of it. He's brought us the story of this marathon in "Reading the OED," and the result is a verbal feast for anyone who loves words. The tale unfolds in twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each chapter opens with a narrative section followed by a selection of some of Shea's favorite words beginning with that letter. Along the way, we learn how his love for dictionaries evolved and how he began collecting them. He had some preparation--reading both the second and third edition of the unabridged Webster's from cover to cover--but hadn't attempted anything of this magnitude. He spent ten hours a day reading, enduring headaches, deteriorating vision and a growing addiction to coffee. We follow him on his search for an ideal place to read. He first tries his own apartment (too many distractions), then various outdoor settings (too many distractions of a different sort) before finally settling into the basement of a university library. His one break during the year? Three days at the conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, of course.

What shines through these pages, and makes it such an enjoyable read, is Shea's sheer love of words--unusual ones, obsolete ones, ones with forgotten meanings. Within the 21,730 pages of the OED he found "everything I had ever looked for in a novel: joy and sorrow, laughter and frustration, and the excitement and contentment that is unique to great storytelling." The best proof of that assertion? Once Shea was finished, he decided to read the whole thing over again.
Profile Image for Shannon.
275 reviews16 followers
June 30, 2011
Growing up, my sister and brother and I knew the OED well. If we ever dared to ask our dad the meaning or spelling of a word, we sighed as he predictably would say, "Break out the OED." We would slide open the drawer in the top of the two-volume condensed set and pull out the magnifying glass before choosing the appropriate gigantic book and seeking out our word among the super-thin pages. We would learn the meaning and spelling, but we would also learn the etymology and how its roots compared with those of other words. Yes, it was a chore all those years ago. But I am thankful now for all I learned throughout the years. And when I saw this book by Ammon Shea on the shelves, I knew it was meant for me. I knew that it would bring back memories of my dad's den full of books, and that I would easily identify with the author. But what I didn't know was that I would fall in love with this man who took a year to read the OED in its entirety-- not the way it was meant to be referenced, but as a project studied from cover to cover (to cover to cover...).

As cliche as it sounds, and as unexpected as it seems for a book of this type, I laughed and I cried through this book. Literally. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy each lucky batch of words Shea chose to bring into the spotlight, but I adored hearing of his journey while accomplishing his goal. The characters he met along the way helped to create a fantastic story, and the author himself charmed me more than I can express.

Every lover of words should read this book. Perhaps even those who are unmoved by language would be pleasantly surprised by the power and emotion in words, and how we (the rest of us) came into this love affair with etymology.
188 reviews36 followers
January 17, 2009
This is an entertaining book chronicling one man’s successful attempt to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, ~25k pages) in one year, reading 8-10 hours a day. The author writes in a lively style that actually makes reading the dictionary sound interesting.

The book is structured into 26 chapters, one for each letter. Each chapter is ~8 pages long with the first ~4 pages chronicling the author’s experience reading the OED or some experience he has had relating to dictionaries (he is an avid dictionary collector). In the final ~4 pages of each chapter, the author highlights words for that letter which he found particularly interesting or remarkable in the OED.

The writing is engaging and this is a quick book to read unless you want to try to actually learn/memorize the vocabulary words, though there is no real need to do so.

If you are a vocabularian or suffer from onomatomania, it is a facendium that you should read this as you will be finifugal as you get into the book. I recommend you wipe the gound from your eyes and give this book a chance. Even the biggest antithalian will enjoy.
Profile Image for Marsha.
Author 2 books33 followers
May 1, 2012
Did you know there are eight different phrases for eight different types of drunkenness? Do you know the word for the stretching you do when you first wake up? What’s that crusty stuff that collects in the corner of your eyes? What do you call that gray, nasty water that flows down the drain after you’ve had your bath? Wouldn’t you like to know?

Ammon Shea made it his mission to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary in one year—all 20 volumes of it. In doing so, his eyesight deteriorated, his posture suffered and he got terrible neck pains. But he unearthed a treasure trove of words, archaic, literate and just plain bizarre, that deserve to be resurrected and brought back into public use. Filled with observation and definitions (although not pronunciations—big omission, that) fueled by a clear love of words and wordplay, Mr. Shea shares a little of what he learned perusing the OED. He endured back pains and diminished vision so you don’t.
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
882 reviews36 followers
May 28, 2017
Q is for quixotic or as the OED has it: exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical
Or maybe the slightly outdated Americanism P is for pixilated: Slightly crazed; bewildered, confused; fey, whimsical as if afflicted by pixies.

The OED or Oxford English Dictionary is very nearly the authority on what are all of the English words and what is the history of each English word. The edition read page for page by Ammon Shea is reported as 21,730 pages. It is for you to say that this achievement done in one year, is the reading equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, a quest worthy of Don Quixote or merely pixilated. Whatever your pick this oddball quest yielded a fun read. In this regard the book The Professor and the Madman may not be the best or final history of the first years of the OED but it is an entertaining selection to complete your appreciation of Reading the OED.The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.)

For me one of the most important things an author of any book or type of book is expected to do is demonstrate the skillful use of the English language. I most enjoy those will bang together words just to see what they sound like. When you have the entire dictionary to choose from there is no shortage of words you can bang together knowing they are rarely seen on any one page.

In what sometimes feels like a very fleeting 230 pages Ammon Shea treats us to selection of the words that caught his eye and gave him the most fun. Each chapter is built around one letter of the alphabet and individual words are alphabetically listed and defined and all for our reading pleasure. Americans, for example are known to be found in many places yet this may be the first time any of you may have read the word "Inquilinate": to dwell in a strange place. One who is goat drunk (Made a lascivious by alcohol) may very well guam (to stare vapidly). Yet you may never again see these two words in the same sentence. In case you don't like goat drunk there is a list of an additional eight liquored up animals to spice up your personal 50 shades of boozed.
Indeed if you enjoy language it is very easy for reading the OED to render you letabund - filled with joy or to feel like a mafflard - a stuttering or blundering fool. And so it goes one letter at a time one word at a time. Each picked because our language is filled with wonderful words that we have a wonderful habit of ignoring. Indeed none is so blind as he who will not zyxt (it means to see but I have no clue how to pronounce it)

Along the way Mr. Shea does not hesitate to poke fun at himself and his decision to slug through the entire alphabet. He freely shares his wonderment and frustration at words we all know we need and did not know they exist. He knows that ultimately the joke is on him but he would rather let us see him in a giddy mood than deny us the fun of sharing his lexicographic voyage of discovery.

Unfortunately the audience for this book is limited. The only character we see is the writer. He is a fun person to know. The plot is simple: read the dictionary from A to Z and find fun words. Reading the OED accomplishes the mission. You may not think this book is for you but if you like words or word games or learning or reading or reading to relax or reading to learn or reading to have fun this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Brooke.
41 reviews18 followers
December 13, 2008
I have to admit, I'm a word geek. I like words just for themselves - wierd ones, funny ones, bizarre ones, common ones. This is a book for people like me. It was so much fun to read, I couldn't put it down and was sad when it was over - it's quite short. Each chapter begins with a short essay about various things, sometimes related to his reading the OED. The essay is followed by a selection of words from the OED that struck his fancy for one reason or another, with definitions sometimes quoted direct from the OED, sometimes supplied by the author with annotations. I'm not doing this book justice I fear, it is delightful, just take my advice and if you like words at all, read it!
Profile Image for Tamara Evans.
813 reviews32 followers
January 27, 2021
As a child, I went through a period of time when I read the dictionary for fun. Having said this, "Reading the OED" is a book that focuses on one man's mission to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (aka OED) in the course of a year made me feel comforted in knowing I'm not the only person who enjoys reading dictionaries. The journey he undertakes is a daunting one considering that the OED is 21,730 however by reading 8 or 10 hours a day, he is able to accomplish his mission on July 18, 2007.

The book is easy to read and the each chapter starts with the letter the author is reading highlighted followed by a summary then a list of the author's favorite words from that section. While reading this book, I was delighted as a word lover and also intrigued by the ways in which language has changed over time.

In addition to learning new words through reading this book, the author also does a great job in pulling back the curtain into the process that in needed to create such a large and exhaustive work presenting the definitive history of the English language. I was intrigued to learn about the different typefaces used for dictionary entries such as bold for headwords, regular font for definitions, italicized shorthand for etymologies, and smaller type for citations.

My only annoyance with this book is that the author doesn't include pronunciations which is understandable since some of the words have not been used in hundreds of years. Luckily, thanks toy YouTube, I have been able to heard some of these words pronounced. Overall, this book provides a great introduction to the OED and invites the reader to learn more about the rich history behind words.
Profile Image for Ellen.
86 reviews5 followers
March 30, 2020
I started reading this book during lunch time because I could read one letter at a time. The author tells a bit about his project and how things are going then he puts a selection of words from that letter. His updates about reading through the OED are often funny and quite interesting. He is a bit of a curmudgeon, though not old, and he seems to prefer being away from people, fresh air and noise, perfect for reading the OED, But as I went through the alphabet with him I just enjoyed the book more and more. Who doesn’t like to page through a dictionary and see where it might take you?
Profile Image for Kim.
506 reviews31 followers
September 2, 2018
I'm not sure I've been inspired to read the OED myself—not even the shortest section, X—but there were many words Shea shared that I'd like to explore further and even add to my everyday vocabulary. For instance, "onomatomania" perfectly expresses my growing frustration at not being able to find (or remember) a word that means "inspired by, created from, and anchored to a given place." (I would rather not resort to my brother's made-up, and virtually unpronounceable, suggestion, "terroiristic.")
Profile Image for Emily.
330 reviews2 followers
December 21, 2018
Fun read. The narrative parts at the beginning of each chapter were okay, but the words he chose to highlight and what he says about those made me laugh out loud quite a bit. I am nostalgic for my dictionary-reading days and wish I still owned one!
Profile Image for Norlene Knepp.
19 reviews1 follower
March 20, 2023
I wish all the words herein were in my vocabulary for everyday use.
If ever I loved the English language, it is now .
Profile Image for Isabel.
155 reviews
February 16, 2023
I have a found a new favorite audiobook. I have never slept better than when falling asleep to this and was always excited to go to bed too.
Profile Image for Dr. Z.
181 reviews
October 7, 2020
Really a delight, one of the nerdiest books I've ever read. I'm so glad people like this exist.
Profile Image for Phil Call.
21 reviews3 followers
July 17, 2013
Reading the OED is about how the author (Ammon Shea) read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (21,730 pages) in one year, reading 8-10 hours a day. Each chapter is titled with a letter of the alphabet, and each chapter has bits of stories of his experiences reading followed by some (15 or so) of his favorite words starting with that letter. It was interesting to read and be amazed at how crazy an undertaking this was. I believe there are a number of other books where people do something interesting or crazy for a year and then write about it (ex: following all of Oprah's advice or living according to the old testament laws). I wonder what I would do.

Oprah book: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Oprah-On...
Old Testament Book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-Living...

Here's an excerpt from Reading the OED, chapter B:

"The headaches continue as I read, but they are not as troubling as they were when I was reading through A. It is not that they are any less severe, but I have come to view them in a different light. Whereas I previously looked upon them as an affliction, albeit a minor one, I now see them as a sign of progress. The more I read, the worse the headache will be. When I find a word that is particularly interesting my pulse will race just a little, and the headache will keep pace with my pulse, a more palpable indication of interest and excitement than a slightly increased heartbeat.

"I've moved from merely being inured to these headaches to actively embracing them, and they in turn have taken on a life of their own. They keep their own schedule, one that more or less mirrors mine, although I think that they are lazier than I am. The first echoes of that delicious pang usually do not arrive until eleven in the morning, when I've already been reading for hours. But the headache rolls up its sleeves and gets to work soon enough, and by the time lunch rolls around it seems to be considerably more energetic than I am.

"It will usually proceed to keep its throbbing pace constant for the remainder of the afternoon, relinquishing its grip only several hours after I have stopped reading. On Saturdays, when I do not read the dictionary, I cannot help but feel something is missing from my body.


"Balter: to dance clumsily
Bouffage: an enjoyable or satisfying meal.
Profile Image for Roberta.
924 reviews7 followers
December 20, 2016
When I was in college I kept a short list of my favorite words. My very favorite word at that time was pensive. It conveyed such a clear description to me. I thought I was pensive. One of my friends ridiculed me for even having a favorite word. She said had never known anyone who did. I believe everyone has favorite words - not just words they use over and over - but words they really, really like.

So, as one who likes to dictionary-surf, I was thrilled by the concept of this book. Actually reading it did not thrill me, even though I learned from it. I learned that I would like to disasinate some of the bayards I know when they obganiate. I learned that, of late, I have been suffering from desiderium and sometimes even palaeolatry. I feel much better knowing that my afflictions have names. I love a meadow that is impluvious and the resulting petrichor, even if I balter through it. But I guess baltering is to be expected as you reach your paracme. And I take umbrage at being called a streetwalker, but I don't mind being known as a vicambulist because I really am one.

What disappointed me about this book were Ammon Shea's choices. C'mon, out of all 21,730 pages of the OED this is best he could come up with? He seems to have a special fondness for prefixes and suffixes, for compound words, and for words that are rather self-explanatory. I was hoping to find some rare gems in here, but alas his choices left me wanting - and he offered no word for that. I heartily agree with the author that "It is not so much that I an anticomputer; I am resolutely and stubbornly pro-book." I just don't get the appeal of, say, the Kindle.

(2011 update) And how's this for irony? I just got a Kindle and I LOVE it. (2016 update) The appeal of the Kindle for me is that I can download a book when I've run out of things to read. Instant gratification.
Profile Image for Heather.
695 reviews15 followers
February 26, 2015
This was a good book to read while home sick with a cold: fun, funny, and not too mentally taxing. Shea, who says in the introduction to this book that he collects words the way other people collect tangible and/or valuable things, read the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in its entirety, and this book is the result. There’s a chapter for each letter, and in each chapter we get some narrative about the project, or about dictionaries generally, or about reading/words generally, followed by anywhere from three to thirty-two words starting with the chapter’s letter that Shea has pulled from his OED reading as being “outrageous, funny, or archaic and deserving of resurrection” (xii). Shea writes about “the enormous number of words that begin with be-” (including bedinner and bemissionary), and about slogging through 451 pages of words that start with the prefix un-. He writes about how different letters feel different: how W, for example, is a section of the dictionary that’s “overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in origin,” since the letter W didn’t exist in ancient Latin. He writes about the trials of finding a comfortable/non-distracting place to read, and about remembering the first book he bought with his own money when he was a kid.

But the words themselves are really the highlight. Some that I particularly like:
“Apricity (n.) The warmth of the sun in winter.
“Impluvious (adj.) ”Wet with rain.” (Thomas Blount, Glossographia, 1656)”
“Jentacular (adj.) Of or pertaining to breakfast.
“Obdormition (n.) The falling asleep of a limb.
“Peristeronic (adj.) ”Suggestive of pigeons.” (OED)”
“Wine-knight (n.) A person who drinks valiantly.
Profile Image for Tracie Hall.
614 reviews6 followers
February 3, 2022
(Available as Print: ©7/2/2008; PUBLISHER: Perigee Trade, 1st edition; ISBN: 978-0399533983; PAGES: 240; Unabridged.)
(Available as Digital: Yes)

*This version: Audio : ©10/14/2008; PUBLISHER: HarperAudio; ISBN: 978-0061735882; DURATION: 05:09:09; FILE SIZE: 148699 KB; NUMBER OF PARTS: 5; Unabridged

(Feature Film or tv: No)

Series: No.

While reading the “Word Detective” by John Simpson, I came across his recommendation of this book with a brief review. I found it intriguing and instantly went hunting on Overdrive. I found an available audio version, so despite having a pile (virtual AND physical) of unread books awaiting me, I downloaded it and began my listening pleasure.
Ammon tells us he read the entire 20 volumes, all 21,730 pages in one year, so that we wouldn’t have to. He’s gleaned some of the best entries and presented them, in most cases, rather humorously. He spent 10 hours a day, tolerating eye-strain headaches, noisy distractions, and, though he doesn’t mention it, probably writer’s cramp from all of the note-taking.
I so thoroughly enjoyed listening to this that I found I just HAD to purchase the Kindle edition so I could see the spelling of some of the words, and go back to it as a kind of reference.
I found a word for my constant struggle at finding the perfect word: otomatomania –usually I lose patience with myself and annoyingly blurt the least fitting word that keeps standing in the way of all the better words I just know are trying to get through. After listening to this book, I now know there are words for things—like that struggle for the right word, that I didn’t know existed, so now, when instances come up that I read about, I struggle all the more, knowing there is a word for that, but not remembering what it is. This, of course, does nothing for my conversation skills, as they are now even MORE littered with, “oh, what’s the word?” But at least now, I can turn to my trusty digital Kindle version on my phone and search on the meaning. It takes way too long of course, so I don’t actually bother holding up conversations, but I might be inclined to return to the subject later with an announcement of having finally found that perfect word I’d wanted earlier. My co-converser could probably care less, but I am at least cured of unresolved frustration. An example: a few days ago, I went to a restaurant overlooking the ocean, where my love and I expected to have a nice peaceful lunch, only to discover we’d been seated beside a table of folks who’d clearly had to wait too long in the bar to be seated. There were guffaws and probably 4 f-bombs to every 3 sentences, all regularly punctuated by an exceedingly loud, shrill laugh.
“There’s a word for that.” I told my husband.
“For what?”
“For that hideous noise emanating from the table beside us.” I whispered (AS IF—like they’d really hear me over their own conversation) “What’s that word? And what did he say about it? It was funny.”
I looked for it later and was pleased that although there’d been hours between when I wanted it and when I offered it, my sweet hubby dutifully laughed. (See the quote if you are curious.) 😊

Ammon Shea: Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the author: “Ammon Shea is an American writer, known for his nonfiction books about the English language. With Peter Novobatzky, he wrote Depraved English (1999) and Insulting English (2001), which highlight obscure and unusual English words. Shea later read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and documented his observations in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008).[1][2] He was subsequently hired to work at Oxford University Press as a consulting editor of American dictionaries. Shea has also contributed to the "On Language" column in Sunday's New York Times.[3] Shea is also the author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads (2010) [4] and Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (2014) [5]

A dictionary collector, Shea had already read Webster's Second International Dictionary in the 1990s.[6] During his life, he has worked as a gondolier, a mover, and a busker.[7]”

William Dufris: 2/1/1958 – 3/24/2020. Oh my gosh, how SAD—he was such a good narrator and was born the same year I was. That’s disconcerting as WELL as very sad. Here’s what IMDb has to say of him:
“Bill was an award-winning actor, director, writer, and producer of audio fiction, who taught and inspired hundreds of people in the art form. As a long-time member of the National Audio Theatre Festivals family, Bill shared his passion for audio storytelling in workshops, performances, and more. Bill started by working with British audio genius Dirk Maggs. From there he voiced Spiderman for BBC radio, became Bob The Builder in American cartoons, brought the X-Files to audio with much of the original cast, voiced over 400 audiobooks, and founded three audio theatre production companies in the U.S., establishing his own Mind's Eye Productions as one of the first independent, all-digital production facilities in the country. AudioFile Magazine named him "one of the best voices of the century" in 2012.”

Non-fiction; Grammar & Language Usage

Dictionaries; lexicography; words; projects

“For Alix, who helps me define the world”

" Onomatomania (n.) Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word. Finding a word that so perfectly describes a rather large portion of my everyday existence is one of the things that makes reading the dictionary feel like an intensely personal endeavor. The book is no longer merely a list of words; suddenly it is a catalog of the foibles of the human condition, and it is speaking directly to me. 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. also see: acnestis Opsigamy (n.) Marrying late in life. Do not confuse the opsigamist with the opsimath (a person who begins to learn late in life), as they are of different ilk— the opsigamist has obviously not learned anything at all.
Osculable (adj.) Able to be kissed. Remember, just because someone or something can be kissed does not necessarily mean that it should be. Something or someone that can be hugged is referred to as hugsome.
Oxyphonia (n.) Excessive shrillness of voice. People with oxyphonia need love, just like everyone else. And I am sure they will get it; they just will not get it from me, as I avoid them like the plague.”

5 stars. Great book.

1/6/2022 – 1/21/2022
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