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Book Review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea

The Old English Dictionary (the unabridged version) is 21,730 pages, and Ammon Shea read all of them in a year. If you’ve never read a dictionary, that may seem like the most boring way to use your life, but having spent plenty of time in dictionaries (out of necessity) I can at least understand why a lover of words could also become a lover of dictionaries. Shea clearly is one and it comes accross. He captures the tension in learning about words, ultimately concluding it’s worth it:

“When I learned that secretary meant “one privy to a secret” … I was utterly delighted. And then I almost immediately began scolding myself for not having already realized such an obvious precedent, and thought that I should feel no excitement at discovering something that in hindsight seems so obvious. But it is excting to make these little discoveries about language, and it shouldn’t matter at all if they are obvious to someone else.”

I also generally agree with his take on books: “The computer can only reproduce the information in a book, and never the joyful experience of reading it.”

My point of pride in reading this book was noticing that one word was misused. Shea refers to the “enormity of the English language.” Enormity, however, refers to “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong,” while enormousness refers to something very large. Small win for me. (I grant him a pass on saying “unconscious” when “subconscious” is a better fit.)

The book’s 26 chapters are split into a mediation on words and a list of particularly interesting words from the respective letter. Since there is no way to review that, I’ll leave you with a list of particularly fun words or Shea’s descriptions thereof. One realization you’ll have is one I shared with Shea: “Reading through the dictionary, I am struck again and again by the fact that many words that describe common things are obscure, while many words that describe obscure things are widely known.”

“Even though I do not feel a need to remember these words, I do feel a need to know that someone has remembered them.”

Strongly agree. Recommended for word lovers.

Airling (n.) A person who is both young and thoughtless.

Bayard (n.) A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.

Cellarhood (n.) The state of being a cellar. Along with tableity (the condition of being a table) and paneity (the state of being bread), cellarhood is a wonderful example of the spectacular ways English has of describing things that no one ever thinks it necessary to describe.

Desiderium (n.) A yearning, specificially for a thing one once had, but has no more.

Elozable (adj.) Readily influenced by flattery.

Fornale (v.) To spend one’s money before it has been earned.

Gound (n.) The gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes. Gound is the perfect example of a word that is practically useless, and yet still nice to know.

Heterophemize (v.) To say something different from what you mean to say. [I really wish this were more widely known because I do this frequently.]

Impedimenta (n., pl.) Such things as impede progress. Although impedimenta has most often been used in the sense of some concrete thing (such as baggage) that impedes progress, I prefer to think of it when I encounter any of the general things that slow one’s progress through life, such as having a moral code of some sort.

Jentacular (adj.) Of or pertaining to breakfast.

Kankedort (n.) An awkward situation or affair.

Leese (v.) To be a loser. [Learning this could really help Trump fit more into his tweets.]

Matutinal (adj.) Active or wide awake in the morning hours.

Nemesism (n.) Frustration directed inward. …a counterpart to narcissism.

Obdormition (n.) The falling asleep of a limb. Obdormition is the feeling you get just before prinkling (pins and needles).

Paracme (n.) The point at which one’s prime is past.

Quaesitum (n.) The answer to a problem; the thing that is looked for.

Redamancy (n.) The act of loving in return.

Stomaching (n.) A cherishing of indignation or bitterness.

Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.

Underlive (v.) To live in a manner that does not measure up to one’s potential.

Velleity (n.) A mere wish or desire for something without accompanying action or effort.

Well-corned (adj.) Exhilerated or excited with liquor.

Xenium (n.) A gift given to a guest.

Yepsen (n.) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also the two cupped hands themselves.

Zyxt (v.) ..”to see” in the Kentish dialect. … [I]i is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.