Tag Archives: Ammon Shea

Words words words: The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP 2003)

I first stumbled on the OED in the Fisher Library at Sydney University roughly 40 years ago. I doubt if I looked up more than two or three words in it, but I did get a whiff of what a miraculous piece of work it is, with its long columns of quotations illustrating how the meanings of every word changed and developed with the passage of time. A couple of years later I read Raymond Williams’s Keywords (a brilliant guide for anyone who wants to chart a path through the spin of political discourse), which cites the OED frequently, and which made me fall in love with the Dictionary at one remove. The Shorter Oxford on the shelf in my last office was consulted regularly, though the Macquarie and then the internet came, , for different reasons, to rival it as authorities of first resort. The thing is, the OED and the SOED are useful, but they are also fun. They’re like water: you go to them because you need them but you stay and take a dip, even immersing yourself for a while, for the sheer joy of it.

To pummel that last metaphor a little, Ammon Shea stayed in the water far too long. The book resulting from his project of reading the whole thing in a year – which I blogged about the other day – is like a report from someone who has just almost drowned. Simon Winchester gives us the view from the shore, takes us diving in occasionally, lets us swim a little, and delivers plenty of draughts of the cool, refreshing stuff itself. This is pretty much the book I had unfairly expected Shea’s to be: a colourful account of the making of the  Dictionary, with lashings of background history, philology and lexicography, a gallery of striking characters and a plethora of shiny quotes. The book captures well an image of the Victorian creators of the dictionary – editors, sub-editors, paid assistants and (in their hundreds) volunteers, summarised in an epilogue as

legions of elderly, usually bearded men, formally dressed in tweeds and gabardine, sitting at high desks, pens in hand, volumes open beside them, sheaves of paper in racks and shelves and pigeonholes behind them, a heavy, cloistered atmosphere of academic rigour and polymathic knowledge enveloping and embracing them like the very air itself.

The proposal that there should be a dictionary that aimed to include the totality of the English language was first put to a meeting of the Philological Society in London in November 1857 by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench. The first edition was published, half a dozen learned and mostly eccentric editors later, in June 1928. The story of those 71 years makes up the great bulk of this book.

Simon Winchester  has an eye for the shiny piece of information that, while not strictly essential to an understanding of his subject, keeps the company amused. Sometimes he relegates a bauble to a footnote, as when, having described one Hucks Gibbs as a good shot, he adds at the bottom on the page, ‘Fairly good: he blew off his right hand in 1864, but remained keen on the sport.’ But the colour and movement mostly happens in the text itself: after all, Hucks Gibbs was important for his largely unsung role in smoothing out some nasty personality clashes that could have doomed the project. His prowess with a gun is only mentioned, one suspects, to justify the footnote. If you were a lexicographer wanting the technical inside story of this greatest of all lexicographic enterprises, such cheerful detail might be irritating. For the general educated reader such as I, they playfully echo the fascination of the Dictionary itself. (One of many moments that struck me, idiosyncratically I suppose, was on page 194, where Winchester quotes for no obvious reason the definitions of the word lap: ‘a liquid food for dogs, that part of a railway track used in common by more than one train, the front portion of the body from the waist to the knees of a person seated’. I don’t know how he restrained himself from pointing out that this illuminates Emily Dickinson’s lines about a train, ‘I like to see it lap the miles/ and lick the valleys up.’ Even though the book gives lots of evidence of his love of the language, my guess is that there are many examples of such restraint.)

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 quisquiliouos, 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.