Word nerd Ammon Shea quit his job as a furniture mover in New York City to spend an entire year reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary. The result, in addition to eyestrain, headaches, and skeptics’ puzzlement, was Shea’s new book, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages. Martha talks about what he learned along the way.
Years ago, I covered a story for a sports magazine about Tori Murden, a woman trying row a 23-foot boat across the ocean. She set out from the Canary Islands with four months’ provisions…and little else: No motor, no sail, no support vessel traveling along with her.
And after 81 days, and 2,962 lonely miles at sea, she reached her goal, becoming the first woman ever to row a boat across the Atlantic.
But for Murden, the challenge of rowing an ocean was nothing compared to the struggle of trying to explain why she’d done it in the first place: Why endure crushing boredom, blazing heat, chilling rain, blisters, and backaches day after day – all in order to row a little boat from one continent to the next?
Recently I thought of Murden while I was reading a book about, of all things, dictionaries. It’s by Ammon Shea, and it’s called…”Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.”
You see where I’m going here: When it comes to dictionaries, Shea is into extreme adventure. This book chronicles his quirky quest to scale the Mount Everest of lexicography: the great Oxford English Dictionary.
Shea is besotted with words. In fact, he quit his job as a furniture mover in New York City in order to spend a whole year reading the OED. He writes that he did so to find out “what words there are for things in the world that I had always thought unnamed.”
And find them he did. Words like:
Petrichor (PEH-trih-kerr). That’s p-e-t-r-i-c-h-o-r. It means “the pleasant smell of rain on the ground, especially after a dry spell.” You knew there should be a word for that, right?
Or how about “apricity”? That word denotes “the warmth of the sun in winter.”
Or how about “balter,” “to dance clumsily.” Now that’s handy.
Trudging though page after page, the author suffers headaches, eyestrain, and a growing ghastly pallor from long days reading in the basement of a New York. Fortunately for Shea, his girlfriend is a former lexicographer for Merriam-Webster – and, one assumes, an extraordinarily patient person.
Shea’s long march from A to Z is often exhilarating, sometimes numbing. His heart sinks upon realizing that the section of words starting with the prefix “un-” — as in “unabandoned, unable” — goes on for 451 pages. He write: “By the time I’ve read one hundred pages I am near catatonic, bored out of my mind, and so listless I can’t remember why I wanted to read any of this in the first place.”
After pressing on through the letter U, Shea is rewarded with gems like velleity, which means “a mere wish or desire for something without accompanying action or effort.” And zoilus. A zoilus is an “envious critic.”
As for the question “Why?” Shea has a ready answer. He writes that he read the dictionary cover to cover because, quite simply: “It was the most engrossing and enjoyable book I’ve ever read.” It’s also why, after finishing the last page, he writes, he happily started over.
And I thought I was a big word nerd.
And now, I have to get back to some dictionary-diving myself.