Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

by Ammon Shea

Reading OED

The moment I first held the book in my hands, I felt a kinship with the author. As a kid, I read dictionary. It wasn’t exactly by choice but rather because it was the only book in my whole family collection besides my text book. Obviously I was not interested in reading text book more than absolute necessity – except the part about reproduction that the teacher totally skipped over – and while dictionary is not up there in the fun list, it could be entertaining to stumble upon new words, and it sure helps boost my vocabulary. So there I was, sitting on the couch with the student version of OED in my lap, until the day a classmate’s mom took me to a magical place called library. I haven’t seriously read a dictionary since, but I always feel like it is a treasure chest, and whenever I open one up, I always end up reading more than one entry.

At first I thought this book may be a little boring, as much fun as reading a shopping list, but the author’s witty, humorous comments on his juicy choice of dictionary entries, interlaced with his personal musings and experience, makes the read a sheer delight.

Some of my favorite entries (italics is dictionary definition, dash indicates the author’s annonations, and parenthesis my thoughts):

Advesperate (v) To approach evening.
– For all intents and purposes this word is almost useless, for I doubt that anyone will ever use it in converstaion with me, and I fervently hope that I myself am never prone to utterances such as “Let’s hurry! It’ advesperating!” Nevertheless, this word brings me a great deal of pleasure, as occasionally when I am walking down the street and the light of day is about to change to the light of early evening, the word will flit through my mind, and I have a rush of joy from knowing how to name such an ephermeral moment.
((I whisper the word, advesperate. It’s not that far from “desperate”, but it sounds much softer, with a wispy quality to it, like sharing a beautiful secret. As if you are do not want to scare away the faeries that are coming out, or disturb the dancing of light, or be disrespectful of the glorious sunset.)

Antithalian (adj.) Opposed to fun or merriment.
Am I just being too serious in life, or am I Antithalian?

Conspue (v.) To spit on someone or something with contempt.
-I have not yet found any word that defines the action of spitting on someone or something for a reason other than contempt (can you split on someone out of friendship or admiration?), and I have a strong suspicion that I will not. One who conspues is referred to as a consputator.
(Boy, a consputator sounds like worthy of an arrest!)

-ee (suffix) One who is the recipient or beneficiary of a specific action or thing.
– …In the interest of expanding your descriptive range I have included the following examples:
Beatee – a person who has been beaten, as oposed to beater.
Boree – one who is bored.
Flingee – a person at whom something is fling.
Gazee – a person who is stared at.
Laughee – someone who is laughed at.

Elucubration (n.) Studying or writing by candlelight.
– From the Latin elucubrare (to compose by candlelight), elucubration is the word to describe staying up late while engaged in putatively productive endeavors, as opposed to just staying up late and watching TV.

Fard (v.) To paint the face with cosmetics, so as to hide blemishes.
– I suspect there is a reason no one ever gets up from the table and says, “Excuse me while I go to the ladies’ room and fard.” It seems to be very difficult to make a four-letter word that begins with f sound like an activity that is polite to discuss at the dinner table.

Finifugal (adj.) Shunning the end of anything.
– Many things in life deserve being finifugal about: the last twenty pages of a good book, a special meal that someone has just spent hours preparing for you, a slow walk in a light rain.

Gymnologize (v.) “To dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher.”
– There are only several plausible reasons I can think of for having an argument while naked, and none of them happens to involve Indian philosophers.
(Who thinks you can laugh out loud reading a dictionary?)

Heterophemize (v.) To say something different from what you mean to say.
(So there IS a word for it…)

Introuvable (adj.) Not capable of being found, specifically of books.
(No kidding, there IS a word for this? And does it mean it’s the books’ problem, not mine? I don’t have too many books, just some that happen to be sneaky and introuvable.)

Jehu (n.) A fast or reckless driver.
– Jehu was a king of Isreal in the ninth century BCE, renowned for both his furious chariot driving and his extermination of the worshippers of Baal.
(Fast and Furious, BCE version?)

Lipoxeny (n.) The deserting of a host by the parasites that have been living on it.
– Lipoxeny is a very serious and very technical botanical word. Under no ciercumstances should you ever use it in a manner that is not respectful of the English language and the biologists who worked tirelessly to fill it with words such as this.

Microphily (n.) The friendship between people who are not equals in intelligence of status.

Obmutescence (n.) The state or condition of obstinately or willfully refusing to speak.
– Anyone who has even been the parent of, or been related to, or been in the same room with an obstinate child will immediately recognize the behavior defined by the word. On the one hand obmutescence can hardly be characterized as a sterling trait, but on the other hand, it is far preferable to a tantrum.

Onomatomania (n.) Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word.
(I am afraid I am no more likely to remember the word describing the vexation I have than resolving the vexation itself.)

Petecure (n.) Modest cooking; cooking on a small scale.
– Very few people eat in an epicurean fashion, yet many of them know what the word epicure means. A great many people eat in a simple fashion, and yet no one knows the word for this.
(Perchance because it sounds too much like pedicure?

Propassion (n.) The initial stirrings of a passion.

Psithurism (n.) The whispering of leaves moved by the wind.
(another word, like Advesperate, that is fun to sound out.

Residentarian (n.) A person who is given to remaining at table.

Scourge (v.) To inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close.
– For passengers of modern transportation everywhere, this word has tremendous and unfortunate resonance. It falls firmly within the category of words that one wishes one did not have occasion to use on a daily basis, but are fascinating nonetheless.
(Another one of these really-there-is-a-word-for-it? words. Ahh indeed an unfortunate resonance. It’s part of the reason why I loved America when I first moved here. No more scourging on the bus or metro with nasty men. Incidentally, sourging is the reason why I still have that habit of not putting on lipstick till I arrive at work. I sincerely hope that I had never caused any marital discord when I accidentally rubbed my lipstick on some guy’s shirt when the bus jerked to a stop…)

Shot-clog (n.) An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the shot for the rest.

Silentiary (n.) An official whose job it is to command silence.

Somnificator (n.) One who induces sleep in others.

Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.
((I like this word. Not quite a thought, just something drifting in the mind, fledging, teasing…)

Unbepissed (adj.) Not having been urinated on; unwet with urine.
– Who ever thought there was an actual need for such a word? Is it possible that at some time there was such a profusion of things that had been urinated on that there was a pressing need to distinguish those that had not?
(Troubling thought indeed.)

“I’m reading the OED so you don’t have to. If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on…” says the author.

Now, I’ve written a review and excerpt of the book, so you don’t even have to read his. No, I’m just kidding. Really, it’s a great book. Enjoyable even if you are not word-obsessed. Really, you should go read it, even if you don’t ever plan to read a page of the OED.

Published in: on October 12, 2012 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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