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Reading the Oxford English Dictionary:
One man, One year
, 21,370 pages
By Ammon Shea, Allen Lane, £9.10

Lunacy can take many forms. Some of these can be very endearing. Take the example of the author of this book who chose to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary or the OED, as it is commonly known. To have some notion about the enormity and the madness of this project, consider the following: the 1989 edition runs to 20 volumes, weighs 137.72 lbs; has 21, 370 pages and approximately 59 million words. It illustrates many of those words with a two-and-a-half million quotations. This data itself is staggering, and the idea of reading all this mind boggling. Ammon Shea did it and it took him one year to do so.

“The dictionary,’’ it has been said, “is never consulted in its entirety.’’ This is simple enough since most of us pick up a dictionary when we meet an unfamiliar word whose meaning is not clear from the usage. The more eager amongst us sometimes open a dictionary to find out how the usage of a word has changed over time, when it first appeared, its origins and so on. Very few, if any, read a dictionary for fun, let alone read the entire corpus. Shea is that unique exception.

Shea explains how his project was born. “Some people collect matchbox cars or comic books...I collect words. One could also say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries, but I don’t see that as a collection. These books are merely the tools with which I gather my collection.’’ To collect words, Shea reads dictionaries, and has been doing so for many years. But he has no ulterior motive for collecting words: he doesn’t want to impress friends and acquaintances since he is by profession a furniture mover in New York. For his colleagues, reading dictionaries to learn new words would be a completely meaningless and loony enterprise.

Shea admits that reading dictionaries is an activity that is “inherently Sisyphean’’, you can never hope to complete it. His ambition was to read the OED because “more so than any other dictionary, [it] encompasses all of English’s glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is today.’’ Shea believes, like most experts, that the OED is “the greatest dictionary in the world’’.

The task was by no means easy. It caused pain and headache, and to the author’s acceptance that he needed glasses. But he persisted sometimes reading for eight to ten hours a day. He began reading in his house, but there were too many distractions there. He tried many libraries and finally settled down in the basement of the Hunter College library in New York. There he ensconced himself among bookshelves that had books on theatre and French literature, neither of which subjects distracted him.

This book then is about one man’s great adventure comparable to an oxygen solo climb of Mount Everest. In the final analysis, Shea did it because the OED was there, and because he was obsessed by words.

This book, however, is a little more than an account of a great journey successfully undertaken. Shea enlivens the journey for his readers with his reflections on the act of reading, on what he read in the dictionary and also about the science and art of lexicography. While reading the dictionary, he was urged by a friend to attend a conference on the making of dictionaries. There he heard someone give a paper on why a form of punctuation called tramlines (//), used to designate a word that hasn’t been naturalized, is missing from the supplement to the OED. He had suddenly met a kindred spirit!

For fellow word lovers, Shea performs a service. He makes an alphabetical list of unusual, unused but interesting words that he encountered while reading the OED. How many know, for example, that the noun ‘rapin’ means an unruly art student. People of West Bengal, perhaps even of India, will be delighted to know that the OED lists ‘kakistocracy’ which means government by the worst citizens.

If you love English and if you love words, this is the book for you. Don’t miss it.

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