Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

The Oxford English Dictionary spans twenty volumes. It weighs 150 pounds. It is the be all and end all of English dictionaries. But it is more than that to Ammon Shea. It is the greatest version of Shea’s favorite book.

Shea enjoys reading dictionaries and he makes a sensible argument as to why this act isn’t as crazy as it sounds – what if your favorite book never ended? Yet Shea also admits that he has been putting off reading the OED for years because (1) he “wouldn’t have it to look forward to” and (2) its sheer intimidating size and scope.

Thankfully for us, Shea has overcome these cautions. As Shea says, Reading the OED is “the thinking person’s CliffNotes to the greatest dictionary in the world.” And it is a joy.

Shea recounts the highs and lows of getting through the OED. He loses a lot of his eyesight and a bit of his sanity (or was it the other way around?). But he also comes across the greatest words that English has to offer and his experiences with the “Library People” of New York are as funny as they are disturbing.

Shea’s writing flows perfectly. Each chapter is divided by letter of the alphabet and includes a list of Shea’s favorite word finds as well as an essay. The essays cover topics such as the history of the OED, Shea’s trials in reading it, his personal life, and the world of lexicography. What makes the essays a joy is Shea’s writing. He is breezy, yet to the point and he gives each topic just the right amount of attention.

Reading Shea, one is almost tempted to pick up the OED. But remember, as Shea says in the introduction, “I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.”

Below are a few of my favorite words from Reading the OED. I believe they showcase the wit and charm of Shea’s writing style. The definitions and comments are his.

“Coenaculous” (adj.) Supper-eating, or, as the OED phrases it, “Supper-loving.” Every once in a great while, a definition provided by the OED is startlingly conversational, as if someone at Oxford had declared they would have “casual-definition Friday,” and the result was that the editors all let their hair down and came up with definitions like “supper-loving.” (p. 31)

Nashe’s definitions of drunks are classic. They are on page 68 and if they don’t want to make you buy the book outright, nothing will.

Mumpsimus – (n.) A stubborn refusal to give up and archaism, especially in speech or language. I’m not averse to stubbornly clinging to an outdated notion or custom on occasion, and I do not think I would make the argument that our language is improving. But neither would I make the case that things used to be much better back in the time of Shakespeare and Dryden, and I find it puzzling when people insist that our language is under attack by the ravening hordes of ignorance, and will succumb any day now. Why do these people always point to eras when the majority of the population was illiterate as illustrations of our lost eloquence? (p. 121)

Rubicundity (n.) “Redness (of face) from good living.” (OED) A quick translation: what the OED refers to as “good living” we typically call “cirrhosis of the liver. (p. 166)

Also, for my Finnish readers, there’s the word Sitzfleisch (n. – The ability to endure in some activity). Is this the often sought after translation for sisu

Up Next: The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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