Review: Reading the OED

In July of 2006, self-professed dictionary lover Ammon Shea set out to read the Oxford English Dictionary, all 21,730 pages of it. A year later, he completed his task, but not without damaging his vision a little. In Reading the OED, Shea shares reflections of his journey, as well as some of his favorite words. The book is (blessedly) short but provides a glimpse into the tome that represents the end-all be-all to vocabularians (“one who pays too much attention to words,” p. 194). This book is great for grabbing and reading a chapter here and there, especially if you find yourself needing a break from a particularly daunting work of fiction, as I did. The chapters are titled “A” through “Z” and begin with short anecdotes that reveal the difficulties and joys of Shea’s journey. There are many nuggets found in this part of the chapters that are worth the effort you might think this book would take. For example:

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

“I snickered like my twelve-year-old self, looking up the dirty words in the dictionary, when I discovered that the original meaning of fizzle was to fart silently.” – p. 180

And while I will likely never read the entire dictionary through (despite Mr. Shea’s exhortations that I do the opposite), I did feel a certain kinship with him and his love of words and the books that hold them.

“I’ve never sat down at a new computer and, prior to using it, felt a deep and abiding need to open it up and sniff it as deeply as I can, the way I have with many a book. To me, computers all smell the same, and their smell is not a nice one. And though a computer will inarguably hold far more information than even the largest of books, sitting down at a computer has never provided me with that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.” – p. 57

Well said, Mr. Shea, well said! These lovely anecdotal chapter openings transition to a selection of words that conclude the chapter. You could skip a word, but the reflections included after the definition chosen by Shea to share are the whole point of the book.

As for the words that I discovered and truly enjoyed, there were more than I expected. Indeed, many of the words I found myself enjoying was thanks to Shea’s short, oft-amusing reflections on the words he highlighted for his readers. I was amazed to find that there were some of these words that I actually knew and used, such as upchuck (“to vomit,” p. 189) and colloquialist  (“an excellent talker,” p. 31). There were many that made sense to me thanks to my background in Latin, though I had never heard these words. There were words that I felt described me. For example, deteriorism (“the attitude that things will usually get worse,” p. 41, which is my basic outlook on life), consenescence (“growing old together; general decay,” p. 32, which I’m doing right now), disasinate (“to deprive of stupidity,” p. 42, which I see as a professional goal) and onomatomania (“vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word,” p. 134, which is constantly happening to me, no matter how many times I’ve used that perfect, elusive word). There were some that were just ridiculous, and many, many that were laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly loved shot-clog (“an unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the shot for the rest,” p. 174) and wonderclout (“a thing that is showy but worthless,” p. 200). That is the true value of this particular book – seeing the Oxford English Dictionary through Shea’s eyes. It’s easy to get excited about words when the person who is telling you about them is abundantly excited and approaches his impossible task with a sense of self-effacing humor.


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