Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

by Shyam K. Sriram

25 November 2008


As a child growing up in the 1980s in Chicago, my favorite show was Reading Rainbow. LeVar Burton, in a post-Roots and pre-Star Trek avatar, led me on a fantastic journey of the joys of reading. Now, as a college professor, I didn’t think I had the capacity to learn—or re-learn—the joys of reading. Well, move over LeVar Burton. Ammon Shea is here to rock our world.

Shea has done the unthinkable. This self-confessed “lover of words,” undertook the ridiculous task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in a year and has emerged with a Pyrrhic victory. Though he may not admit it, Shea must possess some variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for it quickly becomes apparent that no one but Shea could have read the entire OED because no one else could have done the book so much justice. There’s no question that Shea loves this book and his love is contagious because his simple, yet cogent writing style has produced one of the finest non-fiction books of the year.

cover art

Reading the OED

Ammon Shea

One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages


Reading the OED clocks in at a modest 223 pages, but took me hours to read while I scribbled copious notes. Every centimeter of blank space, from the inside cover to the first page of printed text, is covered with my jottings. To keep up with Shea, I find myself keeping track of many of his discoveries with lists of my own. These include words that are used incorrectly compared to their original intentions (symposium, safety-first, salvo, upchuck, etc.); words that are no longer used (curtain-lecture, fomes, Hot Cockles, Zabernism, etc.); obscure words that should be used more often (bouffage, killcrop, happify, unlove, etc.); and words that make you wonder why they were ever coined (unbepissed, paneity, preantepenult, yepsen, etc.). Of the last category, Shea takes special means to highlight “cellarhood” as a perfect example. After reading the definition—noun, “the state of being a cellar”—I would have to agree.

Shea also takes the time to remark on the ridiculousness and wonders of the English language—and the compilers of the OED—by providing groupings of similar words. They include those invented by James Joyce; words dealing with a state of being worthy or deserving; words that describe “an untidy woman”; words describing fake friends; levels of drunkenness; and uses of urine (don’t ask).

However, Shea, the unabashed bibliophile, has a special classification for words that he deems “strange and lovely”. And lovely they are indeed—gems like apricity (noun—“the warmth of the sun in winter”); letabund (adjective—“filled with joy”); and petrichor (adjective—“the pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell.”)

Part literary criticism, part memoir and part adventure, this book should appeal to everyone who has even a basic interest in words. But, let me be positively clear—this is a nerdy book for literary nerds. But, Shea also writes with a lot of humor. From talking to mice in the library basement to offering an alternative homonym for “horde” to this seventh Grade English teacher (figure it out), Shea provides just enough sarcasm and mirth to enliven every chapter. Finding myself laughing out loud, while reading a book about reading a dictionary, is so wondrous that I can’t help but elevate this book.

This book is also an ode to dictionaries and the art of dictionary writing. Like Shea’s friend Madeline, the only person in New York with apparently more dictionaries than the author, he venerates well-written dictionaries as not only the best record of the English language, but also the best books, period. How else can we explain Shea’s decision at the end of the book to begin reading the OED again because, well, how do you read anything after you have finished the OED?

From suffering splitting headaches to experiencing a sudden episode of hysterical blindness, where everything turns gray for a few hours, Shea experiences every possible emotion and heath concern while “eating the alphabet”. So, why did he do it? As he says, “I find that I enjoy these words as curios rather than new words to use in daily conversation, contenting myself with the fact that such strange and lovely words exist at all.”

I experience my own “Shea moment” reading this book as well. When Shea talks about becoming possessive of his favored reading space—the basement of the Hunter College library—he mentions becoming angry at the people who murmur incessantly. This suddenly makes me think, “Isn’t there a word for this?” I hastily and franticly flip back through Reading the OED to find it—admurmuration (noun—“an act of murmuring”). Success! Sriram has become Shea!

So, what is Shea’s favorite word? I have never met the man and probably never will (unless I join the Library People). And yet, from reading this amazing and gripping book, I think there’s an extra special place in his brain for “infelicitate” (verb—“to cause to be unhappy.”) Though his act of sacrificing an entire year to read the OED positively reeks of masochism, its rival, sadism, finds no place here. Shea may not believe he has become a better person by reading the OED, but I have become a better person by reading Shea. I invite you to do the same and fall in love—with words—all over again.

Reading the OED


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