O is for the Oxford English Dictionary…and So Am I

The only person I know who owns a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary is Ara Taylor, a writer who handles Course Reserves at the Whatcom Community College Library.

When, in 1977, her parents asked her what she wanted for graduation, she said—because of her exposure to the dictionary in an etymology class at the University of Wisconsin—”The OED!”

She got it alright, but instead of the 20-volume set, she received the compact two-volume version, with print so microscopic that a magnifying glass was included. Thirty-two years later she was able to buy what she really wanted: the full set for $25 (!) at a library book sale.

Ammon Shea ordered his volumes because he planned to read the entire 21,730 pages. He describes what happened the day his books came.

My Oxford English Dictionary arrives at 9:27 one Monday morning brought by a deliveryman who is much cheerier than I would have expected anyone carrying 150 pounds of books up a flight of stairs to be.” —Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages

From Shea’s descriptions of the books on page one, I knew that he’d be a whimsical, imaginative reader/writer: “They are all dust-jacketed in dark blue, with a regal and chitinous gloss, resembling the covering of some beautiful and wordy beetle.” What a leap of imagination it takes to liken book covers to the hard shells of insects, or, to quote one of the more poetic lines of the OED directly,”carapaces of crustacea.”

Shea has been reading dictionaries since he was ten years old, and in 2007 he began the ultimate eye-straining, headache-producing, and happiest task of his life. Here’s the last paragraph of Reading the OED:

“I had hoped that within its pages I would find everything I had ever looked for in a novel: joy and sorrow, laughter and frustration, and the excitement and contentment that is unique to great storytelling. The OED exceeded all of these hopes and expectations. It is the greatest story I’ve every read.”

I expected a book based on reading a 20-volume collection of words to be heftier than 223 pages, especially since Ammon said “If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on, and enjoy the efforts of a man who is in love with words. I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.

I’m glad for the brevity of his volume because it’s unlikely that I’ll learn even the meanings of the words Shea has included. I’ve become acquainted with Jehu, n. A reckless driver; Tardiloquent, adj. Talking slowly; Inspirado, n. A person who thinks himself inspired. Iatrogenic, adj. Pertaining to symptoms caused unintentionally by a doctor; Elozable, adj. Readily influenced by flattery.

Shea’s book is organized alphabetically, with amiable explanatory text introducing and/or interspersed in each section. He can’t resist calling the Introduction an Exordium

OED definition: The beginning of anything; esp. the introductory part of a discourse, treatise, etc.; ‘the proemial part of a composition’ (Johnson).

 and the Bibliography, an Excursus

OED Definition: Latin word is used by editors of the classics to signify: A detailed discussion (usually in the form of an appendix at the end of the book, or of a division of it) of some point which it is desired to treat more fully than can be done in a note.

I love the OED, which is why my wife gave me an online subscription for Christmas, but I’ve never thought of it as a “story.” He’s convinced me. Listen to what these other writers have said:

  • “No really serious writer should be without an OED...Nothing else comes close.”—David Foster Wallace
  • “I’m told that when Auden died, they found his OED all but clawed to pieces. That is the way a poet and his dictionary should go out.”—Frances Steegmuller
  • “All the raw material a writer needs for a lifetime of work.”—Annie Proulx

Walter Isaccson’s idea comes closest to my feeling: “The OED is not only a wonderful tool for a writer, it’s also an inspiration and joy. I feel invigorated whenever I plunge into it.”

In an effort to learn more about Shea, the author whose book I plunged into and from which I found inspiration and joy, I went to the website listed on the book jacket: http://www.AmmonShea.com. Keying in that address with or without capitals resulted in access to Ammon Shea, Insurance advisor, an unlikely career transfer for a writer who has supported himself as a furniture mover in New York, a gondolier in San Diego, and a street musician in Paris. Can that really be him?

One thing for sure: I’ll read more books by Ammon Shea.

P.S. I saw a complete set of the 1989 OED at a Half Price Bookstore. I’m tempted. I wish it weren’t twenty times what Ara Taylor paid for hers



D is for Detective

D is for Detective, as in The Word Detective (2016) by John Simpson. I’d save this book for the “W” entry, but it’s due at the library and another word-hungry reader wants it.

The book’s subtitle is “Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary.” How many of us have been at a dictionary? The author, who worked on the OED for forty years, is referring to the physical headquarters at Oxford University, at one point described as “gloomy corridors…the office mirrored the sort of work we were doing.”

In 1976, John Simpson, a graduate student finishing up a master’s in Medieval Studies, became a cub lexicographer, ultimately assuming the role of chief editor and overseeing the 1989 update and online version. The OED was first suggested in 1857, editorial work began in 1879, and a final 10-volume edition was published in 1928. Simpson articulates his love for the job in the first chapter.

There have been many accounts of the dictionary’s history, but very few (if any) have managed to capture the excitement of the job––the fact that each day you are uncovering small but significant facts that have been almost entirely forgotten often for centuries and you have the opportunity to bring them back to the surface. The thrill of discovery, like the elation of a well-rounded definition, is almost like creating a poem.

His first task was to update the entry for “queen,” which began as the Anglo-Saxon word cwen. His process for providing new historical information and usage was to collect index cards in the basement of the building, gather additional information from books in the department’s reference library on the first floor, and write definitions in his office on the ground floor.

Hundreds of employees worked on the update. The process of hiring them is different than I imagined:

…Lexicographers veer as far away as they can from people who claim to love words. What is the point of loving words and at the same time expecting to analyze and classify them?” In the process of hiring people, Simpson asserts, “So how do we weed out these word lovers?” By giving them an exam, or, he says, “you just look around the room and see ho is left-handed and you appoint them. It’s a scandalous approach for a professional, but it’s backed up by real data.

 I love the OED, acquainting myself with the 20-volume print edition at the Whatcom Community College Library, the University of Southern Maine’s online version, and learning the book’s crazy history from Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. I missed electronic acesss when I completed my MFA degree, but my wife bought me a year’s subscription last Christmas and also showed me a review of The Word Detective in Christian Century, my current favorite OED book.

 Simpson’s favorite book about the OED is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, published in 2008. Simpson says Shea’s book “starts to bring the dictionary to life in a way that almost all other books about dictionaries fail to do.” I’ve placed a hold at the library for that title and Shea’s Bad English: A history of Linguistic Aggravation.

 If you pick up a copy of Simpson’s book, you might go to chapter 9 entitled “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,”

 Eleven pages of the 34 pages in “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,” is about the f-word, but I didn’t get a subscription to the OED or Simpson’s book so that I could focus on the OED’s category of “coarse slang.” Or did I? J Check out tomorrow’s blog, E for Elucidation


A is for Anu

Anu Garg, that is.

You haven’t heard of him? Well, there are a quarter million word lovers in 200 countries who subscribe to his  A-Word-A-Day column (AWAD) which The New York Times calls “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass mail in cyberspace.”

I signed right up after I heard him speak about The Dord, The Diglot, and An Avocado or Two: the Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-so-Common Words (2007) at my local independent bookstore, Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.

Here’s the entry on “avocado” which should give you a tasty sample of his style:

The word originated in the Aztec language Nahuatl, where it was called ahuacatl, meaning “testicle” because of its shape. When Spanish conquerors invaded South America, they pronounced the name of the fruit as aguacate. The name also morphed into avocado, influenced by the now obsolete Spanish avocado, meaning “lawyer” or “advocate.”

Garg addresses seventeen other words starting with “A.” Some are unusual like “accismus” and “Anagnorisis” and some are ordinary like “antibody” and “admiral.” There’s always something to learn. An “Annie Oakley,” for example, is a free pass to an event. To find out why, I guess you’ll have to read The Dord, The Diglot, etc, but I can’t resist relaying what a “diglot” is: somebody who speaks two languages. Like Garg, for example.

English is Garg’s second language. He comes from Uttar Pradesh (literally “Northern State”), the most populous state in India. While he was a computer science student at Case Western University in Cleveland, he became interested in words, wondering about their origins and development, so in 1994 he started A-Word-A-Day––AWAD as he refers to it.

Even though almost ten years have elapsed since I heard Garg speak, I remember this statement, “I don’t pick words. They raise their hands and say ‘Pick me.’ In the introduction to The Dord,D he writes, “Each word has a biography. It tells us about its parents, where it was born which corners of the world it traveled, and what twists and turns it took to reach where it is today. That biography of a word––the story behind it––is called etymology (from Greek etymos: true)

Here’s what’s true for me: I love Anu Garg’s daily dispatches and I love studying words. That interest explains why my wife gave me a subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary this year and why we have a collection of books on words. So, my 2017 A-Z Blog Challenge will derive material from those sources. I hope you’ll enjoy references to Foyle’s Philavery, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, The Word Museum, and others.

Meanwhile, Anu Garg’s half century birthday is coming up on April 5th. Why not sign up for his column, buy, or check out from the library, one of his books (The Dord…, A-Word-A-Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in the English Language or Another Word-A-Day) . P.S. He’s also written the foreword to Limericks in the Time of Trump.

What better thanks could there be for an individual who has brought such positive attention to the English language?