Book Review: Reading the OED

I am one of those lunatic logophiles who will read — and enjoy — a dictionary if it’s in front of me, so I was pleased to find a fellow dictionary-reader in Ammon Shea, who wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,370 Pages. It is partly a memoir of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and part wordlist of curious, obscure words that are “both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless.”

Of course, I was excited to see what a fellow logophile would pick from the vast menu of the OED, but I swiftly discovered that Shea and I are different kinds of logophiles. And I mean vastly different. I was quite taken aback to see words like “conjugalism”, “all-overish”, “exauspicate”, “mediocrist”, and “residentarian” in his list. Many words were compounds with familiar prefixes or suffixes, and quite recognizable roots — decidedly quotidian, and not a little ugly as a result. Seriously: where are words like “omphalos”, “inconnu”, “chatoyant”, “alary”, “damascene”? Beautiful, lyrical words! I’d be surprised if the OED does not have them! I’d never seen my enthusiasm deflate so quickly.

When I got over my initial outrage and gave it some thought, I noticed that while Shea’s wordlist was indeed a showcase of curios demonstrating that “English has a word for it”, he seems to be interested mainly in the everyday word that, with a little twist, can be turned into an obsolete word with an obscure meaning. He is also interested in words that describe minutiae or fine nuances of meaning: “residentarian: a person who is given to remaining at table”; “pertolerate: to endure steadfastly to the end”; “exauspicate: to do something in an unlucky fashion”.

Now, I happen to love words that are both obscure and beautiful, words that have origins in different languages, which stretch my imagination a bit by their archaic or un-English beauty. Shea’s wordlist does not fire my imagination at all — in fact, it was quite boring. And that is my second, larger peeve about Reading the OED: it seemed the shallowest treatment of the English language. I get a sense that Shea made a wordlist of trivial curiosities, words that titillate for a moment before they are forgotten, words that do not display any of the marvellous depth, variety and beauty of the English language. In fact, the whole attitude of the book was a little condescending towards the words the author has picked. True enough, I would forget those words because they are inherently forgettable, and inherently forgettable because they are really not beautiful at all.

In summary, I’m quite disappointed and annoyed that out of the vast, rich depths of the OED, Shea could only come up with such a shallow, forgettable list of words. (Then again, I haven’t read the OED myself, so I can’t say what words it has and doesn’t have in there.) Reading the OED gave off the vibe of a self-indulgent memoir with little substance. Thankfully, this is only one out of many books on words, and I can see how it fits in with the low-brow popular science/non-fiction genre that seems to be common reading fare nowadays. But I think there are much better books to introduce a reader to the wonders of English language — Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, and Anu Garg of A Word A Day, in particular approach words with a wonder, respect and delight that Shea doesn’t have. I think I’ll go back to them to satisfy my logophilic hungers.

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