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Time for a Tome

Ammon Shea's account of the OED


What we choose to read defines us. Fans of the complex and graceful murder mysteries of Elizabeth George will not view the world through the same lens as those who relish the horror and artfully designed chaos of Stephen King. But it is only when our reading transcends mere entertainment and enters the realm of quest that we can begin to understand the outer limits of the written word. If you have ever attempted to read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake or cracked open the nearly incomprehensible tomes of William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon, then you have glimpsed the often-unreachable heights literature can attain. But at least fiction is not confined to the predictability of alphabetical order.

In Reading the OED, non-fiction writer Ammon Shea recounts his efforts to conquer perhaps the most challenging of all published word mazes. Even while residing on a bookshelf, the Oxford English Dictionary has a formidable presence. Consisting of 20 volumes, spanning 21,730 pages, it weighs 137 pounds. The listings for S alone take up four volumes and over 3,000 pages. "Set," the word with the most definitions, goes on for 60,000 words, the length of an average novel, and in so doing explores every possible shade of meaning. "Set" is listed as a noun (48 senses), a verb (155 senses), an adjective (nine senses), and a conjunction (one sense). Each of these main senses has a multitude of subsenses, making this one word, consisting of just three letters, almost a language unto itself. Shea charmingly suggests that we all at least take the time to read through the definitions for set.

"I'm serious; you should read it." Shea writes, as if it were a reasonable request. He then turns right around and informs the reader that it took him three separate attempts to read all of set. When he finally accomplished the task, he felt like vomiting into a library wastebasket.

Reading the OED is broken up into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. The end of each chapter includes a list of odd and rarely seen words, but the real heart and soul of this amazing work is the ongoing story line leading up to the words themselves. Shea lives in a rarely glimpsed world of dictionary compulsion. Even his girlfriend Alix is a former lexicographer, having once written for Merriam-Webster. They think nothing of discussing etymologies over morning coffee and can haggle over the most minute nuance of meaning like normal couples arguing over who's going to take the dog out for a walk. But when Shea announces his plans to attempt the Mount Everest of dictionary exploration, even Alix is highly skeptical. She has enough dictionary savvy to fully comprehend the enormous effort such an undertaking will require.

Over a 12-month span, Shea reads every single word in the OED. He does not skip quickly through the un-words or speed up the pace through common prefixes. His eyesight, which did not require glasses at the beginning of his word journey, begins to falter as his mind becomes muddled from too much raw language input. After a few months of haunting the New York City Public Library System, he begins to wonder if he has become one of the sad and lonely "Library People." When he finally takes a break, it's to attend the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America at the University of Chicago. Once he arrives, he is stunned to discover that even these hardcore lexicologists consider his attempt utter madness.

"Ha! That's quite funny ... you know for a moment there I thought you said you were going to read the whole—what?—but—but—but it's so long," a member of the Dictionary Society sputtered in astonishment when informed of the author's ongoing efforts.

Thankfully, Shea has devoted a year of his life to reading the OED so we don't have to. But this bizarre book features an excursus with a surprise ending. The author, after reading the entire dictionary, including the bibliography, feels such a sense of loss, he decides to read the whole thing all over again.

"This time I'll be reading with no deadline ... I will allow myself the leisure to stop and investigate it for as long as I like ... When I get a headache, I'll go for a walk ... The OED exceeded all of my hopes and expectations ... It is the greatest story I've ever read..."

If you'd like to discover the measure of a yepsen, or seriously contemplate finifugal, or perhaps just drive your computer's spell-check insane, take a look at Reading the OED. It's sure to expand your word consciousness.