June 13, 2009

BOOKS: Reading the OED, Ammon Shea (2008)

Sitting down to read a dictionary -- any dictionary -- would seem a pointless exercise to most people. It's just a long list of words and definitions, after all. There are dictionary geeks in the world, though, just as there are obsessives on virtually any other subject you can imagine, and for them, there could be no finer way to spend an afternoon than to wallow in definitions and etymologies and obscure words.

Even for a dictionary lover, though, reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary is a daunting thought. At 21,730 pages spread over 20 volumes, it's the largest dictionary in the English language, and given its mission -- to track the historical usage of words -- it has a greater preponderance of obscure, obsolete, and outdated words than any other.

None of which stops Shea from setting out on the project. He is a self-described collector of words, and happily acknowledges that "as far as hobbies go, it is as most of them are -- largely useless." In 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, he talks about his trip through the OED, with frequent digressions about the history and purpose of dictionaries. The bulk of the book, however, is made up of his selected lists of interesting or amusing words found within each letter of the dictionary.

Shea has uncovered some delightful words. Some are words that I'd seen before, but would never use frequently enough to remember them -- "kakistocracy" (government by the worst citizens), for instance, or "velleity" (a wish for something without accompanying action to obtain it). Some are obsolete words that have such a glorious ring I wish they'd be revived; insults often fall into this category, like "fedity" (vile or repulsive practices) or "insordescent" (growing in filthiness). (Since discovering these words, I can't think of Rush Limbaugh without the phrase "insordescent fedity" ringing in my head.)

And as a long-time sufferer from the condition, I took particular delight in the word "deipnophobia," the fear of dinner parties.

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