Book Review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21730 Pages; Ammon Shea; New York: Penguin Group (USA); $21.95.

Ammon Shea, a former furniture mover in New York City, spent a year reading the 20 volumes of the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book is a combination of memoir of the experience and a recounting of the interesting words Shea encounters on his travels from A to zyxt.

Now, I take as much delight in encountering a strange or euphonious word as the next logophile, but lists of “interesting” and “neat” words leave me cold. Maybe it’s because no two people have the same reaction to a word and I just disagree with the compiler about what’s interesting, maybe the thrill is in the encounter and seeing a word etherized and dissected on a table is cold and clinical, or maybe I just don’t appreciate words that are never actually used—as most words in such lists are, but I just don’t “get” the appeal of such books. Reading the OED, however, is different. This one is a gem.

The difference is in the memoir of the experience and in Shea’s commentary on the words he encounters. Reading the entire OED cover to cover (20 times) is not something a perfectly sane person would do. Shea portrays himself as a misanthropic curmudgeon. The only hint of humanity in the man that the reader gets is the knowledge that his long-suffering, lexicographer girlfriend Alix loves him, so he can’t be all bad. Now, I don’t know Shea and he may be a perfectly delightful person in real life (I suspect he is), but the character who prowls the stacks in the sunless basement of the Hunter College library, wired on caffeine and shhhing talkative college students who disturb his reading, is fun to read about. As an example, Shea’s reaction on thinking he has finished the mammoth project:

After I finished dancing my jig I sat there and debated whether or not I wanted to read the bibliography. I told myself that it is not really part of the dictionary […] That night over dinner I told Alix that I was finished reading. She asked, “How was the bibliography?”

I replied in as offhand a way as I could manage that I’d decided not to read it. She gave me that steady look that is so quietly indicative of disapproval and after a moment said, “You are going to say you read the whole OED and you are not going to read the bibliography?” The next day I began reading again.

In addition to the vicarious experience of reading the OED, the reader is treated to Shea’s commentary on many of the words in the dictionary. Shea provides the words, his own definitions—often of a secondary or tertiary sense—and usually some wry and snide observations to go along with them:

Pertolerate (v.) To endure steadfastly to the end.

I am of the opinion that the word tolerate should be used to describe life’s everyday banalities. Pertolerate, on the other hand, as it refers to seeing something through to the bitter end, should be reserved for describing enduring something that is particularly grueling and tiresome, such as musical theater, or performances of any sort by children not your own. also see: sitzfleisch.

Or this one:

Assy (adj.) “Asinine” (OED)

It is infinitely comforting to find that within the hallowed pages of this monumental work of scholarship, some lexicographer saw fit to insert at least one truly memorable four-letter word.

Anyone who enjoys words, and this means pretty much anyone who is reading this, will thoroughly enjoy Reading the OED. I strongly recommend picking up a copy from your local bookstore or library. With 26 short chapters, one for each letter, it is well-suited for reading in snatches during a commute or while waiting for the dentist and can easily be polished off in an afternoon of steady reading. Unlike the project it depicts, Reading the OED does not require a year of sustained effort. It’s well worth it.

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