“The Human Experience … Alphabetized” “The Human Experience … Alphabetized”
Culture

“The Human Experience … Alphabetized”

by Mark Peters

November 12, 2008

A Q&A with Ammon Shea, dictionary reader extraordinaire

I have accepted the Oxford English Dictionary as my personal savior. That sounds a tad dramatic, but the OED may be the one indispensable resource if you're a linguist, lexicographer, language columnist, word maven, English teacher, Scrabble-head, crossword fiend, or other word nerd. With the rather immodest goal of capturing the entire history of English, the OED is the Bible of the language-loving.Still, lexical lust has its limits. The last time the whole thing was printed, in 1989, it weighed in at 20 volumes and 150 pounds. Of course, no one has ever read the whole thing cover to cover.Until now.Ammon Shea-a dictionary-delver since ten who paid his bills at various times as a street musician, gondolier, and furniture mover-recently spent a year reading the entire OED. For those curious, amazed, and/or horrified by his feat, Shea, a 38 year-old New York City resident, documented his experience in the entertaining and informative Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Perigee Books).The book has a terrific double narrative-progressing through the alphabet and the year-as Shea's lexical journey takes him through libraries, ophthalmologists' offices, dictionary conferences, and obscure-word-filled dreams. Each chapter of this quirky, engaging book ends with a collection of rare finds from a particular letter, such as twi-thought ("a vague or indistinct thought"), oscuable ("able to be kissed"), and grinagog ("a person who is constantly grinning").The book is also full of revealing trivia about common words. I'm particularly grateful to Shea for revealing that fizzle originally meant, "to break wind without noise." I will surely use that word in reference to my own future fizzlements, and knowing the flatulent origin does give a useful sense to fizzled out. I may even cover future embarrassments with this example sentence offered by the OED from back in 1721: "I fizzle such small puffs of wind."If you like words at all-and why would you be reading this column if you didn't?-then I can't recommend this book enough. Through a series of emails, I was able to get even more insight into why and how Shea climbed this literary Mount Everest. An edited transcript of our conversation follows:First off, I have to confess that I am insanely jealous of you. I am an OED-holic, and what you've done appeals completely to my sick, word-humping mind. That said, how do you explain the whys of this project to someone less word-loving? And what kinds of reactions do you get? The overwhelming response has been one of puzzlement, with occasional bursts of incredulity. Although I can certainly understand why people might not think that dictionaries are readable-as other books might be-I'm still a bit confused by the homogeneity of this response.I think we've all looked through a dictionary at some point and found a previously unknown word that we thought magical-a word about which we would say, "There is something special about this word, and I'd like to stick it in my pocket and take it with me." While most people would have the impulse to remember this word that they found –maybe they write it down somewhere or try to use it in conversation-I have a slightly different reaction: [I] think, "If I've found this one marvelous word, there must be thousands of others hiding in the pages of this dictionary." And so the only way to find all of these words is to engage the dictionary as one might engage a novel.Once you begin reading the dictionary (and this applies to almost any dictionary, but especially to the OED), there is something marvelous that happens: It becomes apparent that this is not the literary equivalent of reading a phone book, a mail-order catalog, or some other instance of non-narrative text. Sure, there is no discernible plotline in the dictionary, but the actual words and their meaning can evoke all the emotions from a reader that a more traditional piece of literature can. For instance, when you come across the word desiderium-which more or less means, "a desire for something you no longer have"-it's impossible to not stop reading and think on some desiderium of your own.I think you can say that the entirety of the human experience is contained within the dictionary, it just happens to be alphabetized.In the book, you express surprise that there weren't more racist terms. What are some of the other shockingly word-attracting topics?I would say that the topic that leaped out at me the most was likely the profusion of words for an untidy woman-cases in which the word untidy was used specifically to refer to a woman (I found no instances in which it referred to a man): dab, draggle-tail, daw, dollop, drab, drassock, drotchell, malkin, mopsy, Mother Bunch, ragbag, scrubber, slatern, slut, streel, trollop. That's a hell of a lot of untidy.There were inconsistencies that existed from one letter to the next, and I assumed that this had to do both with the vagaries of both the English language and the editors of the OED. I seem to remember that there were six words in "G" that all meant "to gnash the teeth." (I think they are grint, grent, grist, grist-bite, granch, and grassil.) That just seems a bit unnecessary to me. I'm sure that there are many other areas that are either under- or over-represented, but they don't come to mind at the moment.Well, if teeth-gnashing ever catches on, at least we'll be prepared. … Speaking of pain, I was struck by the physical and mental price you paid in reading the OED and subsequently writing the book: You note how your eyes, back, and neck deteriorated-not to mention the psychological weirdness of spending so much time reading. It struck me that you were like an explorer of dangerous, unknown territory, braving all 451 pages of un- words just to bring a beauty like unbepissed back for the rest of us. Are you feeling better these days?I am feeling entirely better, and still reading the dictionary quite a bit, although not in the A to Z fashion of before. I've been spending quite a bit of time comparing the 20 volume print version, which was published in 1989, with the ongoing online edit, which has revised all the entries from M to the beginning of R. They're making enormous changes to the dictionary, and it's fascinating to watch the process unfurl.What other projects have filled your time since finishing the OED? Anything new you can talk about?I'm also working on a new book. I'd like to describe it, but I'm not certain that I've gotten far enough along with it to do so. I'm interested in examining what it is that we consider to be readable, and what we consider to be books. For instance, the dictionary is unquestionably a book-it's paper with printed words, bound between covers-and yet people recoil at the idea of reading it. I want to know why. So I'm examining what common books we have more or less abandoned as readable, and in what ways these common books have changed shape.In the past year I've met a number of people who say that they like to read railway schedules. At first glance this sounds like the most horrible thing in the world-lists and tables of numbers and place names-until you hear why they enjoy reading these things.  It's always some variant of how they like to replay the memories of trips they've had on these railroads previously or to plan future trips that they'll take. To me this is a delightful imaginative exercise, like reading a novel-but with having to supply your own narrative and descriptors.Are there any lasting changes in your perceptions of language or the world brought on by your unique immersion in words?I would have to say yes. I end up paying more attention to many things that I now know there exists a word for. I'll notice the smell of the rain now that I know the word petrichor, the warmth of the sun in the winter now that I know the word apricity, and the sound of the leaves rustled by the wind now that I know the word psithurism.  Unfortunately, I also pay more attention to the things, such as people who laugh too loudly. I now know the word for that: cachinnator.Finally, there must have been a lot of words you wanted to include but couldn't fit in Reading the OED-unless you had 21,730 pages of your own. Can you tell GOOD readers about a favorite word or two you discovered but didn't include in the book?Bulbitate: to befilth one's breechCrump: applied to the sound made by the feet in crushing slightly frozen snow; and to the action, which produces itPick-mote: a person who draws attention to trivial faults in othersUnairable: not capable of forming good music.Vulpeculated: robbed by a fox.
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“The Human Experience … Alphabetized”