Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2010

Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea

I admit it, as a teenager I did read my school dictionary sometimes, when I was bored with sitting in the car waiting for my mother to do the shopping on our way home after school.  However chez T&L where we have the two-volume Shorter Oxford, the Oxford Concise, the Oxford Reference, the DK Ultimate Visual, three versions of the Macquarie, a Webster and half a dozen foreign language dictionaries, I have never been tempted to do it in adulthood.  I’m interested in words, but  these days I mostly learn new ones by reading John Banville’s books (which are notorious for using deliciously obscure words).

Ammon Shea, however, made a quest of it, reading the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary) in its entirety over the course of a year.  The blurb tells me that this dictionary comprises 21,730 pages, and weighs 62 kg.  His book traces that journey, and is a distillation of some of the most intriguing words that he discovered en route.  If you are a word lover, or you just enjoy quirky books, this one is a must.

Shea has the kind of eccentric sense of humour that I like.  Here he is introducing the book:

There are some great words in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Words that are descriptive, intriguing, and funny.  Words like artolater (a worshipper of bread).  It is unlikely you have ever seen artolater written or heard it used in speech, as it hasn’t been used much since the seventeenth century.  It is in the OED, but even if you own this magnificent dictionary, it is still highly improbable that you have ever seen this word.

In fact if you were to open the OED at random, there is about a .0046 percent chance that the page you are looking at will have artolater on it.  This is approximately equal to the chance that your child will become a professional athlete.

If you were to sit down and force yourself to read the whole thing over the course of several months, three things would likely happen: you would learn a great number of new words, your eyesight would suffer considerably, and your mind would most definitely slip a notch.  Reading it is roughly the equivalent of reading the King James Bible in its entirety every day for two and a half months or reading a whole John Grisham novel every day for more than a year.  One would have to be made to seriously consider such an undertaking.  I took on the project with great excitement.

There are 20 volumes in the OED, and these days of course you can have the whole thing on a CD.  (Or is that a DVD?) But no, that is not how Ammon wanted to read it at all. Indeed he is at some pains, in the chapter headed letter F, to explain why reading anything on a computer is not for him.  He acknowledges that the electronic version has lots of beaut features, but reading on a computer screen gives you no sense of time or investment.  The page always looks the same, and everything is always in the exact same spot. (p56)  He likes the feel of the weight of the pages changing from the right to the left.  He likes the smell of new books. And (my favourite) he says he’s never looked across the room at [his] computer and fondly remembered things [he] read in it.  (p57)  I expect he wouldn’t like an eBook either, for the same reason.

He shares the history of dictionaries, about the days when one person could write one alone but how now it takes great teams of people to assemble them.  He tells us about a friend of his who is obsessed by dictionaries which fill her house.  He discovers he can’t read in peace at home, so he slopes off to the library for some peace and quiet, but he suspects that the copies there get more use by being stacked up as a stepladder than by being read.  Since he prefers to be a garbist (n), one who is adept at engaging in polite behaviour than to yell, he has managed to rid his library niche of those pests who talk by telling them that there are rats in that part of the library.  This is a technique I may try myself next time I’m doing some research in the SLV.

Aamon has a less sympathetic optometrist than I do.  Randal and I get together once a year, and once he’s confirmed that yes, I’m still reading in bed every night and for hours and hours at a time on the weekend, we do the tests and he simply writes me a new prescription and then we go and choose some swish new glasses to go with it.  Poor Aamon’s optometrist’s advice is to read less.  What a charlatan!

(Is that the correct word to use for one so unempathic?  Perhaps I am heterophemizing? (Saying something different from what I meant to say?)

This is a lovely book.  Keep it on the coffee table and browse through it while the sport part of the news is on.

Author: Ammon Shea
Title: Reading the OED
Publisher: Viking Penguin 2008
Source: Personal copy, from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $29.95.  (I bought one for my dad too).


  1. Anita Brookner is also a wonderful source of new words I’ve found. This book sounds like the perfect one for my Mum for Christmas. I can see it’s going to be dangerous, what with good reviews and the Book Depository my shopping will go apace. I am ordering it now (and hope I find time to read it too).


  2. I’ve got this one by my bedside at the moment. Thanks to your review, I think it might be the next book I read. As an avid dictionary reader, yes I’ll even admit it in a public forum, I think this one will really appeal to me. My Dad might get a kick out of it too.

    (And, I’m currently having a heated argument with myself about buying the Shorter Oxford!)


    • Jess, I’m so glad you dropped by, because now I have discovered your blog! What delicious books you have read lately, and I think your review of The Slap is excellent, especially your point about forgiveness. I’ll be browsing the rest of your blog at the weekend (in between MWF sessions, of course!)


  3. I heard about this book when it came out, and have been intrigued by it since then. It sounds such fun. I generally like all those reading memoir type books. I don’t have as many dictionaries as you- we only have the two volume Shorter Oxford, that DK Illustrated Oxford, a medical dictionary, and an American one, and a French-English. I do remember reading dictionaries for fun as a child, and my son is currently obsessing about doing spelling words from his Oxford Primary School Dictionary, after he came fourth in a recent spelling bee in his class. But my reading card is too full at the moment to consider reading this book just now. I’m glad you liked it, and thanks for the review.


  4. You’ll love it, Sue!
    And (yes, I’ll confess it now), I actually bought this one for my Dad, who lives too far away in QLD to share it with) so I went back to the shop and bought another one for me.


  5. Hi Louise, I think my dad has the most dictionaries of anyone I know. He and my mother have been doing the cryptic crosswords together since forever, and they have all kinds of specialist dictonaries as well (like you medical one).
    What he really needs these days though, is a dictionary of pop culture. They ring me up on Sundays every now and again when they are stumped, wanting to know the name of some celebrity or sportstar or phrase from popular music. Alas, I don’t do popular culture so I don’t have a clue!


  6. Terrific review. ‘…browse through it while the sports part of the news is on’ gave me a chuckle.


  7. That’s a very good idea Lisa. I hardly ever get to see the news, but when I do I never get to see the weather because I always get distracted or leave the room during the sports news. I think that They should change it, put the weather on before the sports. Most people will have some vague interest in weather. You are either interested in the sports news or not- it should be on last.


  8. Oh do get the Shorter Oxford Jess. It’s great. My wonderful husband – of 32 years now – gave me mine for our 1st wedding anniversary which is PAPER. What a wonderful choice for one such as me (we “dated” over cryptic crosswords). It’s a worthy investment, notwithstanding all those useful free online dictionaries.

    And Lisa, I have ordered it from your link for my Mum’s Xmas gift. Present 1: Solved!


  9. Louise, I am having a running battle with ABC Online Victoria because 90% of the time their Victorian reports are more than 50% about sport. Sport is entertainment, not news I tell them, but clearly there is a sports junkie in charge of the bulletin and he (it *has* to be a ‘he’) is obsessed by AFL football.
    Did you know that more people in Australia go to arts and cultural activities than sporting ones? Why we are continually given stuff about sport we are NOT interested in and NOT given any news about the arts I do not know…
    Ok, ok, off my soapbox….


  10. Lisa, thank you for your kind comments! I’ve been a long time reader of your blog but I guess I just haven’t commented until now. I’m a bit shy!

    WhisperingGums, I think that is the most romantic thing I have ever heard. And now I’m just waiting for the Shorter to arrive in the mail. Expensive habit, reading book blogs.


    • And now we are friends, Jess! Are you going to the MWF? Lisa


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