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Reading the OED

by Ammon Shea (Perigee 2008)

Many readers, picking up Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, will expect to find a book about the famous Oxford English Dictionary, and there are undoubtedly people who will make their way all the way through with the book that impression intact. But Mr Shea's real subject is himself or, rather, the engaging, perhaps slightly too-well-calculated persona that he has evolved for the purposes of this memoir. In twenty-six chapters, most of them about ten pages in length, Mr Shea works his way through the alphabet. Each chapter begins with a brief essay, often autobiographical, and ends with a list of odd words that caught the writer's eye. Some of the words really do seem too good to moulder in the OED, and I expect that everyone will readily come up with a list of five or ten words that ought conscientiously to be introduced into everyday conversation, like the offerings on a word-power calendar. But the odd words will probably be forgotten. Mr Shea probably won't.

Reading the OED works because the adventurer presented in its pages is rather like the hapless victim of some appalling disease. His affliction is a fascination with dictionaries. Reading the OED is not really a stunt for Mr Shea, because he has read other dictionaries before. The OED is the most magisterial of dictionaries in English, and Mr Shea allows himself a year in which to read it, but these are slight distinctions in a lifetime spent, it seems, in proximity to lexicons. In other words, Mr Shea is not a stand-in for you or me. He is not reading the OED so that we won't have to. He's reading it because it's the sort of thing that he likes to do.

That Mr Shea is not a conventionally bookish man is made very clear on page 113.

Several letters pass and I discover what is perhaps my favorite definition of all in the OED: disghibelline ("To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.") When I first read this I was convinced one of the editors had brought his children to work one day, and they amused themselves by creating nonsense definitions for the dictionary, and this one somehow slipped in. This time I could not resist, and went off in search of what Guelphs and Ghibellines are. It turns out they were competing political parties in Italy, a very long time ago, and disghibelline is in fact a real definition. When I read it and say it out loud a few times I have the same feeling I get when I discover that the library book I've just taken home has not been checked out in eighty years.

To be sure, I have never seen the word disghibelline, and I always have the devil of a time remembering whether the Guelphs supported the Emperor or the Pope (they supported the Pope), but I know that Ghibelline is the Italianization of the name of a castle somewhere in Germany, or north of the Alps anyhow, and that Guelf is an Italian stab at "Welf," a family name. All of this would be uttermost arcana if Guelphs and Ghibellines didn't run all through the pages of that summa of all masterpieces, Dante's Inferno. It is impossible to read Inferno today without consulting the footnotes, and it is impossible to footnote Inferno without mentioning the parties in whose warfare Dante had the misfortune to be caught up. (I believe that in his case the matter was even more complicated, involving a rivalry between "Black" and "White" Guelphs.) What's really impossible is to read Dante without developing a cerebral callus imprinted with these strange words. You might not know what they mean, but you'd never suspect the editors of the OED of winding you up.

Ammon Shea, then, seems to be a man who reads dictionaries period. As is mandatory in books about disease, he is not the only sufferer.

As far as I am aware, my friend Madeline is the only person in the world who ever made her living solely from buying and selling dictionaries. She is semiretired now, but was a full-time bookseller in this peculiar vein for several decades, and in the process she managed to amass a collection of dictionaries and a body of knowledge that are both fairly staggering. When people come by my house for the first time and express surprise or apprehension at the fact that I have a thousand or so books about words lying about I'll offer up Madeline as a way of explaining that my collection is actually rather small and manageable. She has at least twenty times as many as I do.

At the letter "R," the author flies to Chicago to attend a lexicographers' conference, where he discovers that he is an amateur that is, he is not compiling a dictionary himself. (He only reads them.) "A woman named Sarah Ogilvie is talking about how she spent a good deal of the past five years trying to unearth the reason that a particular form of punctuation (//), called tramlines, and used to designate a word that has not yet been naturalized, is missing from the supplement to the OED." This is the sort of treat that we expect of essays about professions that we've never given much thought to, or even knew existed. But it is also one of many reminders in Reading the OED that it is possible to be bound up with books without caring much about their contents. The contents of a dictionary such as the OED constitute an index of countless other books, but those books are of interest to the dictionary's editors not because they're good books but because they happen to contain certain words. Is it even as close as one remove from literature? I see that I am begging a question: what is the use of literacy, if not to read "literature"?

In instance after instance, Mr Shea as good as proclaims that the very idea of "literature" gives him hives. He flourishes his ignorance of French with the enthusiasm of someone with no real interest in language. Indeed, the conceit of Reading the OED is that the dictionary contains many curious words that all but belong in bell jars of formaldehyde. There is no need to use them, or even to know what they mean, because they are intrinsically magical. And there is an intrinsic magic about words a dark power capable of coughing up some rather sulfurous clouds. I remember once working my way into a fugue state simply by repeating the word "California" over and over, until its inherent absurdity took on a lethal rhythm. But that's it, you see: words have no intrinsic meaning. They are all conventions. And dictionaries exist not to highlight their strangeness but to clarify their mundanity.

So it was a welcome surprise, at the letter "S," to come across a most unexpected lament.

But one of the things that irks lexicographers the most is that the common words the ones that require the greatest expenditure of effort to define are the same words that are looked up the most infrequently.

This propos of "set," the word with the largest entry in the print version of the OED. That's what I find irresistibly maddening about words. It's not the curios like "jentacular" (of or pertaining to breakfast) or "expalpate" (to get something through flattery), but the "sets" and the "makes" and the "dos." The variety with which these common words are deployed says something about the English language that, perhaps because he doesn't seem to care about language, the stringing together of words, but only words themselves, Mr Shea doesn't touch on: our proclivity to concoct astoundingly numerous permutations of common words to create verbal complexes for which there may already exist single, purpose-built words in the recesses of vast dictionaries. Big words have always been fashioned out of small elements (as any etymology will make clear), so there may be nothing new about our vernacular eloquence. Nor is it a matter of making common sense out of common elements, as anyone who has puzzled over Henry James's slang knows (what, I wondered for years, does "hang fire" mean?). But in the end it's the common words, the ones that we think we know, that we've got to master.

Whether your relation to words is like Ammon Shea's or very different, his book will at least make you realize that you've got one.

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