Like any good nerd I love an excuse to talk about the Oxford English Dictionary. Really, there is nothing like it in any other language—it’s just that cool. I wish I had a copy. Seriously.
A few years ago I read Simon Winchester’s fascinating The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, which tells the story of one of the editors of the dictionary—Murray—in the early years and one of the contributors—American Civil War veteran, and lunatic, W.C. Minor. Minor killed someone in London and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a facility. He spent it reading books and writing letters and dictionary entries from his cell outside of London in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Despite its serious and strange subject matter, it’s a great book, and it gave the OED, a 26 volume 21,730 page dictionary, its wee bit of fame, as Winchester's tale hit the bestseller’s lists and was by most accounts riveting. It was so popular, in fact, he wrote a follow up, called The Meaning of Everything, which is on my reading list.
All of this is prelude, as I read another great book about the OED this past week. (Turns out there are a number of books about it.) This most recent book is called, simply, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21, 730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, and it’s delightful. Shea collects dictionaries and decides to just sit down and read the OED—all of it. The book he writes walks the reader through his journey in a very easy and sunny way. This is not a heavy and dense read even though it is about a very heavy and dense set of books. Like, one of the reasons he gives for not having read it yet, given his love for dictionaries, is that he’s afraid he’ll be disappointed that after he reads it he won’t have it to look forward to again. Nice. He really brings the wit and joy of the experience to the forefront.
A few of my favorite words, from the beginning of the alphabet, at least. These definitions are Ammon Shea’s and come from the book.
Abluvion (n.): Substance or things that are washed away.
All-overish (adj.) Feeling an undefined sense of unwell that extends to the whole body.
Ambisinistrous (adj.) Having two left hands; clumsy. More or less the opposite of ambidextrous.
Artolater (n.): Worshiper of bread. (I am this.)
Assy (adj.) Asinine
Cellarhood (n.) The state of being a cellar.