How to Use a Dictionary


I recently acquired another dictionary.  The dictionary, in fact.  This post is not directly about that, but about a man who did the same thing, and then took matters much further.  I just read Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,720 Pages.  Is reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary a mere stunt, an excuse for writing another unnecessary book?  There are better books out there on lexicography and the OED.  Shea is sometimes flippant.  He claims to be making the Cliff’s Notes for the OED, to be picking out all the best words and saving us the effort.  I am one of those who hate spoilers, but I only worried about this for maybe ten seconds before pressing on. 

Shea has a chapter for each letter of the alphabet.  More or less half of each one consists of curious words.  “Omnisciturient”, for example, means “desiring to know everything”.  This aspect of the book is no different from any other collection of odd words. It’s frustrating, because it’s obviously arbitrary, whereas it seems that what should set the book apart is the utter comprehensiveness of the OED and what Shea is attempting to do.

The other half of each chapter is where Shea describes reading the dictionary and gives us a little of the history of the OED.  He has trouble with headaches and searches for the perfect place to read.  He needs to be away from the rest of his dictionary collection, because the urge to compare definitions causes too many interruptions.  There are some threads running through these sections that I found very interesting.  Hidden somewhere in this piece of zany “prescriptive non fiction” (the publisher, Perigee Books, specializes in upmarket self help and business titles) is a real life Borges story on an outlandish and possibly pathological linguistic theme.


For one thing, Shea argues that reading the dictionary is better than reading other books.  “Actual books”, I am tempted to say.  He compares the dictionary to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is touching the way he urges the reader to try reading just the letter X, or perhaps the words starting with “inter”.  Words are the substance of language; everything that we love about it, from poetry and novels to history to whatever set of statements we accept as truth, is just form.  I’m not really espousing this.  But Shea is apparently in thrall to the feeling of finding the right word, which is admittedly quite a feeling.  Having words for things helps us to appreciate them. 

I lose patience, though, with the way he rejoices over a word like “pandiculation”, which means something like stretching oneself in tiredness or waking.  It’s distinct, that is, from stretching before exercise or stretching a rain fly over a tent.  I even checked to make sure he wasn’t plucking one sense of the word from many, that he wasn’t trying to make something new out of a Latinate word simply meaning “stretch”.  He wasn’t.  He says “Everyone does it, and no one knows what to call it.”  Maybe I’m too literal minded, but at that point I want to shout, “What the hell is wrong with ‘wake up and stretch’?”  Cultivation of these highly specific words suggests that someone is reaching for a language without adjectives, subordinate clauses, or even grammar.  Is the logical end of this a world where there is one word for everything, even for War and Peace?  If you know something well enough, I suppose that’s possible, but no one does.

Then there are the interesting psychological effects that I imagine come with reading postdoctoral grade definitions for ten hours a day.  Shea talks about his speech slowing down as he gropes for words he feels he has known.  He wonders if he knows English at all and dreams in definitions.  I’ve felt the disorienting effects of reading and I’d like to hear about just how far they can be taken.  After finishing “set”, the longest definition in the OED, he feels so nauseated that he crouches over a trash basket.  Or is he just reaching for effect?  Shea’s forced jokes and lack of follow through on some of his most interesting ideas are disappointing. 


How can he envision a language made of stout monosyllables like “prend” (a mended crack), and then not go in search of an answer to the question of how many monosyllables there are?  Why not pursue the question of how many words a person can know a little farther?  For that matter, we never hear how he actually managed to live for a year while doing this project.  But I suppose I won’t get anywhere accusing someone who read those twenty volumes of lacking follow through.

I’d still like to know where Shea falls on the scale of word lovers, of scrabble and spelling bee champions and other prodigious readers and mnemonists.  At some point I will probably pick up Know It All, which is about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  I’ve got a couple of those lying around too.  Since it may be a while before I get around to blogging about it again, I should say that I am very excited about my copy of the OED.  What can I say? I want to hold its heavy blue folios over my head and bellow like a fanatical hierophant, and I don’t do that very often.

I Bought a Dictionary

I’m kind of ashamed of this one.  Let’s face it, print dictionaries are pretty pointless now.  This is a big one, guaranteed to become a burden at some point in my future; it weighs around five pounds and is of a size that only suggests similarly obsolete items, like a VCR or a desktop computer.  Yes, it’s a Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, unabridged.  The worst thing about this purchase is that I already own one.

My dictionary, open to the plate

In my defense, it was absurdly cheap.  I’m not one to get alarmed over the state of books and reading, but something profound does appear to be happening to the market when reference works of this quality go all but discarded.  The W2, as they call it, came out in 1934, and is still sometimes seen propped open on tables in good libraries.  The first printings of W2 contained the famous “dord” error: a slip reading “D or d” as abbreviations for density was misconstrued, given a pronunciation, and printed as a word.  The W3 came out in 1961, occasioned some controversy for including words like “ain’t”, and remains the last of its line. 

The one I just bought is on India paper, meaning it has about half the thickness of one printed on ordinary paper, and its binding has held up correspondingly well.  My first W2 is one of the thickest books you will ever see.  It’s almost a cube.  I went so far as to make a lectern shelf with a sloping top, but the book has been well used and the state of the binding made me afraid to let it stay there.  It has sentimental value as well, and is also a dord dictionary.  The new one isn’t a dord, and so I’m happy to study the long term effects of my lectern on the binding.

I’ve put it to decent use so far.  Some smart guy used the word “diuturnal” in an article I was reading.  Other words I’m keeping secret for use in games of dictionary.  The plates alone were worth the price of the book.  I waited weeks before buying it.  Most people just don’t know a great thing when they see it.