Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading the OED - Book Review

Reading the OED
by Ammon Shea
Perigee Books 2008
Author Website
Way way back in the dim dark ages when I was in elementary school, we used to have to learn vocabulary words from a spelling book. The words were divided into 8 lists - each list of words (called levels) being harder than the one before. I remember getting to level 8 by age 10, but not being allowed to go to the next level which was Dictionary.

That may have something to do with me always reading during spelling tests and still getting 100%. I was so bored during spelling tests. Mr B, the teacher, would say the word, use it in a sentence and then say the word again - and then wait 5 minutes before going onto the next word. I usually had the word written down before he had said the word a second time. Then for the 5 minutes of silence I would read.

If Mr B honestly expected me to sit there for 5 minutes and twiddle my thumbs - he was seriously mistaken. He would frequently tell me to stop reading, but I never did - not during spelling tests anyway.

I am thinking now (more than 30 years later) that this is why he never promoted me up to dictionary level.

So speaking about dictionaries, now that I have read The Madman and the Professor, the men who created the Oxford English dictionary back in the mid 1800s, I guess the next thing to do, is to read the whole thing.

Gasp - it has 20 volumes!!!
Yes thats right.
But I cant read all that!!!
Tell you what...
Why you dont get someone to read it for you??

And thats exactly what I did. I got Ammon Shea to read the OED for me. He has read the full 20 volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 edition) so that I don't have to.

Ammon Shea has a dictionary collection. In fact he has several hundred different dictionaries on his bookshelves in his apartment. But that is not a world record. NO. The world record should belong to a woman in New York city named Madeline who has 20,0000 dictionaries!!!!!

Ammon describes the challenge he gave himself, to read all 20 volumes of the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

He began reading these books at home. But he kept getting distracted by the dictionaries on his bookshelf. So he found himself a place to read in the basement of the library at Hunter College (in NYC) - where there were only French and Music books - neither of which he could read so he could not be distracted. As he read he would note down the interesting words that he found and then write down his own understanding of what the word meant.

For one of the words that is mentioned - I found Ammons description to be funny and still cannot stop laughing whenever I read or think about it.

FARD (v) To paint the face with cosmetics so as to hide blemishes.
Ammon's comment >> I suspect there is a reason why noone ever gets up from the table and says "Excuse me while I go to the ladies' room and fard."

PALEOLATRY (n) Excessive reverence for that which is old.
My comment - I beleive I have demonstrated this paleolatry in this blog several times in expressing my love for antiquarian books.

PLINYISM (n) A statement or account of dubious correctness or accuracy, such as some (statements) found in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).
Ammon's comment - This word was coined in 1702 by a man named Cotton Mather purely because he disliked Pliny's writing.

If you play Scrabble, there are perhaps 20 to 25 words starting with Q that do NOT have the U as the second letter. BUT you cannot use these non-Q-U words in the game as they are NOT in the official Scrabble dictionary.

Between the R's and the S's, Ammon and his girlfriend take a break and attend a 3 day conference run by the Dictionary Society of North America, taking place in Chicago.

The letter S stretches across 4 of the 20 volumes of the OED!!!

In the print version of the OED, at 25 pages long, the word SET is the largest entry.

The S-E words are the UN- words. This list is 451 pages long. Ammon says he is is bored after 50 pages and catatonic after 100 pages. SE means self-explanatory. Where if you know that UN means NOT, and from that you can work out that the entire word means NOT- whatever the word means.
I can think of one English word that I dont think fits this category. UNDERSTAND
Is there any such word as Derstand in the English language? I don't think so.

VALENTINE (V) To greet with song at mating time (usually said of birds)
Ammon's comment - When birds sing to attract a mate, it is called a Marvel of Nature. When a man does it, it is called grounds for a restraining order.

There is a word in the OED for everything - such as the little plastic tips at the end of shoelaces (aiglet). Did you know there is also a word for the cupping of your two hands together - for example to drink water or to hold sand on the beach?

YEPSEN (N) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together, and also the two cupped hand themselves.
My comment - We call these cupped hands together begging as in Please sir, I want some more... (Oliver Twist 1968)

The very last word in the OED is.... ZYXT (V) to see.

OED website (requires subscription)

Further Reading. I think I will try and read some of these books. Ammon has read them all.

Simon Winchester who wrote The Professor and the Madman about the making of the OED. He also wrote a book called The Meaning of Everything which is a more detailed history of the OED but no less entertaining that the Professor/Madman.

Caught in the Web of Words - James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by Murray's granddaughter Elizabeth Murray.

Lost for Words - The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary by Linda Mugglestone.

I read this book for the Bibliophilic Challenge.

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