Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is as nerdy and niche as it sounds. Some people take pleasure in reading the dictionary, and some people (who claim they would never read the dictionary) are curious how that would be like.

I love language—I love how it evolves over time, and I love how a word once balked at eventually becomes generally accepted vocabulary. Although I still have qualms about “irregardless” (maybe we can still put a stop to this?), I must admit that it does have a ring to it. …And now that I’ve demonstrated why I am the type of person to read a book such as Reading the OED, I’ll stop gushing and talk about the book now.

The book chronicled Ammon Shea’s journey as he read through the multiple volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (in case you were wondering what OED meant). With each chapter, Shea included his thoughts about this massive undertaking and words that stood out to him. His musings weren’t lengthy and gave context to the list of words that followed.

Shea also talked about his obsession with dictionaries and how each edition reflected the personality of the editor or author. As I read through this, I thought to myself: maybe I should find myself a nice vintage dictionary to add character to my shelf… Or maybe I should open up a dictionary and read it for fun… But where do I even begin? Should I copy Shea and go for the OED (abridged—there’s no way I’m reading the complete edition)? Or should I opt for Merriam-Webster or Random House? Maybe I should check what dictionaries I already have at home? There are so many considerations. (Don’t be too surprised if I one day declare that I have read a dictionary because I’m a little curious now.)

I loved reading the through the words Shea selected and featured. Who knew there were so many words relating to urine (why the fixation on this?) and to alcohol (seriously, should we be concerned?). My favorite page lists Thomas Nashe’s eight types of drunkards (the Merriam-Webster list uses slightly different terms from the one Shea references, but I’m not going to spend too much time looking for the exact version Shea used).

Reading the OED sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, and Shea does not disappoint in humorously documenting his journey. It’s hard to imagine how reading the dictionary can be fun, but here’s Ammon Shea to enlighten us all. For lovers of the English language and things eccentric, I recommend reading this book. It’s short and light and includes words like goat-drunk, jocoserious, and unbepissed. Check it out, or read the dictionary yourself. (Let me know how that goes.)

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