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Monday, March 2, 2009

Reading the OED - Ammon Shea

The premise of this book is best explained with the author’s own words:

“ Some people collect matchbox cars or comic books. Others collect more obviously valuable things, such as rare paintings or cars. Most of these collections are made up of tangible objects, things to which one can assign some sort of monetary value.
I collect words.”

The author collects (and reads) dictionaries. And in a fit of what most would consider the extreme crazies, he decided to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary in one year. For anyone unfamiliar with this work, it’s a 20-volume collection of all of the words in the English language, tracing them back to their roots, with examples of all usages. As an example, the entry for “set” takes up twenty-five pages.

I love words. I subscribe to two word a day email lists, and keep a folder in my inbox of the ones that have piqued my interest. I’ve used the OED on occasion. I’d never, ever want to read it. I can only salute the author, and hope he suffered no lasting scars from the experience. But seriously, if you like words, this is an interesting survey of a very important lexicographical work. Shea has structured each of the twenty-six chapters to contain an ongoing description of his reading journey, and the highlights he found for each letter of the alphabet. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites, with my own comments, in the spirit of the book:

Kakistocracy: government by the worst citizens.
Wish I’d know about this word for the last eight years.

Petrichor: The pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell.
I just love that a word exists for this.

Scrouge: To inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close.
This instantly reminded me of the green line on the T.

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