Words words words

Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21,730 pages (Viking 2008)

Ammon Shea set himself the task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary – those thousands of pages mentioned in the subtitle – over a year, and writing a book about it. He spent between eight and ten hours a day for most days of a year in the basement of a library on the actual reading, ruining his eyesight, not doing his health much good, wreaking havoc with his social life. I hope for his sake the resulting book earned out its advance, but I’m sorry to report that I just didn’t find it very interesting. Perhaps inevitably, the actual story of the reading lacks drama, especially as Shea conscientiously avoids distractions, including anything other than dictionaries that might cast light on his reading. The interspersed short essays on things dictionary-related have their nuggets of shiny information, but are generally Lexis Ultra Lite.

What might have been the book’s sustaining backbone is the annotated listing of words that took Shea’s fancy. But the vast bulk of his chosen words are of the polysyllabic latinate or hellenic variety – mataeotechny, materteral, matrisate, matutinal, mediocrist, microphily, micturient, to cite all but one of the words on a spread opened at random. Such words have a scholarly aroma to them, which doesn’t make them uninteresting (though matutinal and micturient are pretty pedestrian), but it does make them same-ish, and many of them show the workings of their construction. The remaining word on that spread is mawworm, meaning ‘a hypocrite with pretensions of sanctity’, and it too smells of the midnight oil: it’s a literary invention (a dead eponym from a forgotten 1768 play by the largely forgotten Sir Isaac Bickerstaffe). If the words themselves are mostly less than enthralling, the comments tend to forgettable persiflage, often of an unpleasantly misanthropic hue. Mediocrist, defined (by Shea) as ‘A person of mediocre talents’, gets this: ‘Nobody wants to be mediocre, but someone has to be. In fact, by definition, most people are.’ H. L. Mencken he ain’t. As the book progresses, in fact, the misanthropy comes to seem less like failed wit and more like confession of a deep malaise in the writer. There’s definitely a sour taste to comments such as this on xenium (‘a gift given to a guest’): ‘Unless you are one of those unbalanced individuals who actually enjoys company, I would recommend giving a xenium such as a pair of used socks, something that says, “Here is a gift – please go away.”‘

Given that one of the appeals of the OED is that it meticulously notes the point at which each word entered the language and the way its meaning changes and develops, it is particularly disappointing that Reading the OED mostly refrains from giving us that sort of information, even giving Shea’s own definitions rather than those of the dictionary. All the same, I was still in there trying to enjoy the book until I reached the chapter on N , which begins, ‘One of the things that has been painfully apparent as I read through the enormity of the English language is just how very little I know of it.’ He’d read the OED but doesn’t know the meaning of enormity. I wish I could believe the irony of that sentence was deliberate. I did finish the book, but with little pleasure.

By sheer chance I started on this book just after reading ‘Infinite Anthology‘, the 2010 British Poetry Society’s annual lecture delivered by Les Murray in May and reprinted in the August Monthly (reprinted, I note grumpily, without any apparent editing to acknowledge that Monthly readers are by and large Australian, as distinct from the lecture’s original audience). Like Ammon Shea, Les Murray describe himself as a collector of words, but when Les talks about words, you can hear his passion for language as a window opening onto truths about class, regionality, history … the whole of humanity. His pleasure in any given word is bound up with where it comes from, what it’s used for, who used it. He’s not impressed by latinate constructions – give me his doosra, camel toe and deadly (meaning ‘excellent’) any day in preference to quisquilious, quomodocunquize or supervacaneous.

One word – petrichor – is mentioned by both writers. Murray’s lecture opened with a list of sixteen words he has submitted to the Macquarie Dictionary over the last couple of years. The list ends:

Petrichor – aggregate of natural oils and terpenes on dry ground; gives off an exhilarating loamy smell when wetted by rain. Said to trigger reproductive cycle in aquatic creatures, fish etc. Discovered by Drs Joy Beard and RG Thomas at the Australian National University in 1964.

Evidently the OED beat the Macquarie to the punch on this one. Shea’s entry, longer and more personal than most, reads:

Petrichor (n.) The pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell.
is a fairly recent word, having been coined by Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas for an article they wrote in 1964. I first came across this some six or seven years ago, thought to myself, ‘What a lovely word,’ and then promptly forgot what it was. I have spent far too much time since then wondering vainly what it was. When I found it there, buried in the midst of P, it was as if a kink in my lower back that had been plaguing me for years suddenly went away.
also see: impluvious

For Shea, petrichor is memorable because it is ‘lovely’, whatever its meaning. For Murray, it’s a word – that is, to call it lovely without reference to its meaning would be absurd. Shea is fairly slapdash in his definition, and goes on to talk about himself; Murray is more precise, and gives us the part of the world the word illuminates, throwing in a pinch of national pride and a dollop of ‘look-it-up’ non-condescension (definitions of terpenes abound elsewhere, after all). It’s worth mentioning that Shea got the second scientist’s name right – it’s Bear, not Beard. On the other hand it seems that Dr Bear is generally known as Joy rather than Isabel Joy, so Murray gets a point for that. Les Murray’s error indicates, it seems to me, that he is writing, not from a written source, but from the extraordinary reservoir of knowledge he holds in his head. (It may also indicate that his editor at The Monthly was less on the ball than the people at Viking.)

Back to Shea: he concludes his introductory section, ‘I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.’ Well, heroic his reading may have been, but that sentence is salesman’s bulldust.

4 responses to “Words words words

  1. Jonathan, does he have anything to say about my favourite word?

    taghairm n. in the Scottish Highlands, divination: esp. inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall.

    It always works for me, though I’ve yet to find an opportunity to work the word into a conversation.


  2. That’s one of the book’s most shocking omissions, Richard. Next time you’re chatting with Les Murray, though, you might have a sporting chance of working it into the conversation and getting something other than a blank look!


  3. The rain’s pouring out of the broken gutter in front of my window…it could count as a minor waterfall perhaps. Now all I need is a bit of bullock hide…perhaps a leather seat cover…and I’ll be inspired enough to think of a clever reply.


    • I had to look up taghairm on Wikipedia, Richard, and while I know Wikipedia’s not always reliable, it might be right when it says killing a few cats will also do the trick.


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