Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The man who reads dictionaries by Tom Geoghegan

From the BBC news website:

Ammon Shea spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words - and he rates poring over a dictionary as enriching as reading a novel. Why?

The prospect of talking to a man who reads dictionaries for fun prompts a sudden vocabulary-insecurity complex and a fear that every word he utters might sound like a painful medical condition.

But thanks to Ammon Shea's belief that long words only hinder conversations, there's no need to consult any dictionaries while he clearly explains his eccentric hobby. "I'm not against big words per se or fancy or obscure words, obviously I love them, but I'm opposed to using them for their own sake," he says. "If words are to form a communication, you use them as a tool to communicate to people and it's pointless to intentionally use a word that no-one else knows."

Mr Shea, a 37-year-old former furniture remover in New York, has spent 12 months conquering what he describes as the Everest of dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by ploughing through 20 volumes weighing a total of 137lbs.

In the process, he became the Morgan Spurlock of lexicologists, devouring words for eight to 10 hours a day, which caused him severe headaches, deteriorating eyesight and injuries to his back and neck. So why bother? "I've always enjoyed reading dictionaries and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great dictionary, except for the plot.

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a dictionary but not necessarily in the order that you would think." If you come across a word like "remord" (to recall with a touch of regret) it's impossible to read that word without thinking of things that you regret yourself, he says, or to read "unbepissed" (not having been urinated on) without a chuckle.

"Knowing what to call something makes me more aware of that thing. For instance, it's not terribly useful for me to know that [the sound of] leaves rustled by the trees is a psithurism.
"I don't want to walk down the street with my girlfriend saying: 'Listen, there's a psithurism.' But knowing it means I pay more attention to it."


Similarly, knowing that "undisonant" is the adjective to describe the sound of crashing waves and that "apricity" is the warmth of the winter sun brings these things more often to mind.

"It's not easy to use them in conversation and so I enjoy them for their own sake. They are like one-word poems." Turning page after page of unfamiliar words made him sometimes feel like he was reading another language, he says. That was dispiriting but also intriguing, because it showed how rich and powerful the English language is.

But absorbing so much made Mr Shea lose his grasp on his normal vocabulary. He recalls being fascinated when reading the definition for the word "glove" before he realised it was a word he already knew.

"That happened frequently. I guess it gave me a useless large vocabulary and in the short-term I lost my normal vocabulary. I would go to the shop and forget the word for milk. Momentarily I'm looking for the cold, white stuff."

Mr Shea is not alone in his love of dictionaries. WH Auden waxed lyrical about them and Arthur Scargill said his father would read one every day because his life depended on the power to master words.

Thousands of avid Scrabble players read dictionaries looking for words, especially those with a high-scoring J, Q, X or Z, says Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Collins Dictionaries. And crossword fans devour dictionaries for the same reason.


"We also have people writing to us who have been very interested in obscure words and obscure definitions.

"A student in Iraq was trying to learn English and he sat down trying to learn every word in the dictionary, starting at the beginning with A and working all the way through.
My father still reads the dictionary everyday. He says your life depends on your power to master words


"It's probably not the best way to learn English, and you'd learn many more than you would need."

But dictionaries are a wonderful source of learning about the origins of the English language, she says, and especially the Greek and Latin roots to many of the words. Collins, which records everyday language rather than all known words, is involved in a campaign to save some of the lesser-used words from being edited out of its future editions. Stephen Fry, for instance, has championed "fubsy", which means "short and stout".

"One of the nice things about dipping in and out of a dictionary is that although people are very comfortable with the vocabulary levels they have, there are some good fun words in there that offer an additional dimension of interest," says Ms Higgleton.

Some of Mr Shea's favourites garnered from the OED include "assy", which means behaving like an ass, and natiform, which means "buttock-shaped".

It's impossible to be intimidated by a dictionary that uses a word like assy, he says, and to pick one up and glance through one - rather than just opening one when in trouble with a word - can be a captivating experience.

And how much of what he has read has stayed between his ears? Throwing 10 semi-hard words ( from the OED at him, Shea correctly guessed five definitions. That's a considerably higher success rate than many of us would have scored, after reading 59 million words.


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