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.


My Literary Companions

I’ve long taken these friends for granted, but as big reference books of all kinds are superseded by Wikipedia and Google and begin to crowd the shelves of used bookstores, maybe an appreciation is called for.  The Oxford Companions always took pride of place on my parents’ best bookshelves, low down over the back of the couch, an easy reach for a kneeling kid.  I used to look at the smoky whaling scene on the cover of the Companion to American Literature, and I wondered why the girl on the spine of the Companion to English Literature looked so sad.

The Companions (we also had the Companion to Classical Literature and the Companion to the English Language; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations always struck me as an honorary member of the company) are not-quite-encyclopedic miscellanies of the titular subjects, including primarily authors and works, but also characters, periodicals, places, mythological figures, and so on.  The original, the Companion to English Literature first published in 1932, contains quite a bit on the Greek and Latin classics, major French and American figures, anything that made an impression on English letters at all, really.

The books are okay for actual reference, but of course they can hardly compete with the internet.  Once a week, maybe, I’ll turn to them before I turn to Wikipedia.  They are wonderful for aimless browsing, of course, but the same can be said again for Wikipedia.  What they really have going, besides mere authority, is their stubborn upholding of the archaic and forgotten.  I can look up Jane Austen, of course, and then I discover she’s flanked by the minor Roman poet Ausonius, and by Alfred Austin (1835 – 1913), barrister and one time poet laureate of England.  These figures were once really important, probably to some of the people who are still important to us, and that is why they deserve to be remembered.  You might find them on Wikipedia, but they don’t form any large part of the typical Wiki binge.  They’re also good for the occasional blunt editorial judgement: Austin “published twenty volumes of verse, of little merit”.

I’m always meaning to investigate more recent editions of the Companion to English Literature; the latest came out in 2009.  They’re always a little hard to track down, librarians somehow being reluctant just to stick them all in one place.  Certainly significant efforts have been made to update, include, contextualize… I doubt that the latest versions can compete with mine of 1967, in terms of price if nothing else.  There are also many, many new Companions on subjects that to me seem like rather a stretch, like Mark Twain and beer.  They’re probably fun, but these are not small investments in shelf space or money!

Since my parents of course were not parting with theirs, I’ve had to build up my own collection.  The English companion I inherited from a grandparent; I found my used Bartlett’s for a now exhorbitant seeming $15; the American I found at a library sale for an incredible $2.  The Oxford Guide to Philosophy appears to be an unsuccessful rebranding of the series for the American market; I found it remaindered at Borders for a well spent $10.  Finally, Princeton jumped ahead of Oxford with its daring Companion to Mathematics.  Perhaps it was an impossible venture, it’s hard for me to judge.

The very well done Oxford Companion to French Literature was probably my first companion purchase, but it now resides with my parents’ collection.  I may raise my eyebrows at the Companion to Australian Gardens or the Companion to American Food and Drink, but I have to appreciate their thoroughness and I may still invest in a Companion to Spanish Literature, a Companion to German Literature  For years I was certain that there existed an Oxford Companion to Russian Literature.  It seemed indispensable.  Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that there is no such book!  Does anyone know of a suitable replacement?