Sunday, October 31, 2010

Every book in the world, in over 20 volumes

I recently finished an intriguing book: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea. Shea’s day job was as a furniture mover; he dated a lexicographer with a dictionary publisher; and he has a lifelong fascination with dictionaries. His apartment is lined with homemade bookshelves laden with dictionaries; he derives most of his pleasure in life from pulling one down from the shelf and opening it to any page to read. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the monster of all dictionaries.

Each chapter of this book was named after a letter of the alphabet. Each chapter has a short essay, usually humorous, followed by a few chosen words that start with that letter. Generally, I skipped the words and definitions (this was a filler book, between other choices), but I marked a number of interesting entries:

Kakistocracy: government by the worst citizens. Worthy of an essay all by itself, since Tuesday is election day and the vitriol seems so ramped up this year.

Misandry: hatred of men. As Shea notes, its partner, ‘misogyny’, seems to have much more currency.

Vocabularian: one who pays too much attention to words. Shea should volunteer to have a snapshot on that page.

Wine-knight: a person who drinks valiantly. “As entries occasionally are in the OED, this is wonderfully unclear. How exactly does one drink valiantly? Draw your own conclusions.”

Wonderclout: a thing that is showy but worthless. “Surgically augmented breasts and a large vocabulary are two things that come to mind…”

Yepsen: the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.

Scringe: to shrug the back or shoulders from cold. Finally, a word that describes Nelson’s story about what northeastern winters force us all to do, almost involuntarily. I had to tell him last night when we got together for dinner.

Shea does identify one word not listed in the OED: ‘adoxography’, meaning good writing on a trivial subject. To many readers, Shea’s book would appear adoxographic at first glance. But I found it a very entertaining description of one man’s love of reading that turns into an obsession. In the last chapter, he admits that he is going to read the OED cover-to-cover again.

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