12 December 2023

The joys of exploring the OED

My acquaintance with the Oxford English Dictionary began in college when my part-time job was in a house library, manning the checkout desk. Near my desk was the multivolume, red-bound 1960s version. When students weren’t using the library (which was quite frequently), I had the satisfaction of being paid $1.50/hour while browsing through the OED.

It was probably 5 years or so later that the compact edition was released – 16,000 pages compressed using such an unimaginably small font that I needed the magnifying glass even when I was younger. It was one of my first book purchases when I was in graduate school, and I have kept that compact OED in my office ever since.

So it was with some interest that this year I encountered a flurry of online reviews of a book entitled Reading the OED. One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages, by Ammon Shea (Penguin Books, NY, 2008). Our library had 4 copies and only 6 requests, so it was available rather quickly.

I'm probably one of the few reviewers to offer an unenthusiastic assessment of the book. As a scholarly work, it's frankly underwhelming. It's a quick read - only 223 pages in a relatively large font, with a dozen pages left totally blank (when I see that I always suspect publishers of padding, but perhaps there’s a typographical reason for needing to start each chapter on the recto rather than the verso.)

The book is formatted into 26 chapters (you can guess the chapter titles), each with 3-4 pages of seemingly random thoughts about books, dictionaries, lexicographers, or the author’s often curmudgeonly approach to his personal life. If you want to learn about the OED itself, there are better sources, including Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, or perhaps his The Meaning of Everything.

The principal value in Shea's book is his selection of interesting words – again 3-4 pages per chapter with a couple dozen words accompanied by abbreviated definitions. Even here the author inserts a rather misanthropic view of interpersonal relationships, especially with regard to children. But the words themselves are a joy to encounter. As Shea acknowledges, these are not words to “know” in the sense that one would want to use them in conversation or even in writing; there’s satisfaction enough in just knowing the words exist.

Herewith some of my favorites...

Agathokakological – “made up of both good and evil.” Which prompted me to look up the “agatha” part, because obviously the “kako” part was the evil (think “caca”). And sure enough, there it was in Greek: alpha/gamma/alpha/theta/omicron/sigma = good. From which an “agathodemon” is a good deity, and “agathism” is the idea that everything tends toward a good outcome [interestingly, not the same as “optimism” which implies that all things are CURRENTLY for the best – I never knew that]. And of course this new knowledge gives me an appreciation for Agatha Christie’s parents’ naming skills.

Ambisinistrous – “having two left hands; clumsy.” The literal (but unappreciated) opposite of “ambidextrous” which is used as “skilled with both hands” but etymologically means both hands are right hands.

Apricity – “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Because “apricate” is Latin for “to bask in the sun.”

Atrate – “one dressed in black.” One dressed in scarlet is “coccinate” and in purple is “porpate.”

Balaamite – “one who is religious for the sake of monetary gain.”

Bayard – “a person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.” I certainly would like to work this into a blog post. Wish I had known about it during the pre-election season.

Consenescence – “growing old together.” A wonderful term applicable to marital bliss if one ignores the second meaning of “general decay.”

-ee suffixes – a "beatee" is someone who has been beaten, boree is one who is bored, a "flingee" is a person at whom something is flung, a "gazee" one who is stared at, and a "laughee" someone who is laughed at. With Thanksgiving coming later this week, remember that a “sornee” is “one who has been sponged upon by others for free food or lodging.”

Gobemouche – “one who believes anything, no matter how absurd.” Definitely blogworthy.

(more later. It's getting late)

Reposted from 2008 (!) to add information about this book:

Sarah Ogilvie is a linguist and lexicographer who currently teaches at Oxford University.  She wrote this book in part to fulfill James Murray's 1892 request that "lovers of our language will not willingly let die the names of those who, from unselfish devotion and service to that language, have laboured in the cause of the Dictionary."

Twenty-six chapters (of course) present brief biographies of the "ordinary people" around the world who sent in the little slips of paper that Murray and his team in the Scriptorium compiled into the OED.  Those readers included vicars, lunatics, suffragists, murderers, and New Zealanders.  Herewith some interesting anecdotes:
"If we define best contributor or OED Reader in terms of number of slips, then the outright winner was a mysterious character called Thomas Austin Jnr who sent Dr. Muarray an incredible total of 165,061 over the span of a decade.  Second place goes to William Douglas of Primrose Hill [151,982/22 years]... Third to Dr. Thomas Nadauld Brushfield of Devon [70,277/28 years]... with Dr William Chester Minor of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum coming in fourth place with 62,720 slips.  Dr. Minor was not the only one in a mental asylum - all four were, for some period or another, suggesting a connection between word obsession and madness."

"Writing in his journal, [Arctic explorer] Richardson recorded that they soon ran out of provisions and had to survive by searching for small amounts of tripe de roche (lichen), even resorting to eating their moccasin boots... They scavenged for old bedding made of deer skins that the indigenous peoples of the region had discarded the previous winter... but most of them are rotten... those that contain the larvae of the oestrus [warble fly] are most prized by us, and eagerly sought after..."

"... as [Teena Rochfort-Smith] struck a match, the head flew off and set fire to a needlework mat.  Teena threw it down and stamped on it.  She put out the mat but did not notice that the bustle of her dress had caught fire, and, as she moved, it lit the lace curtains.  She first tried to put out the curtains, and then her own dress.  When this failed, and being unable to undo her corset, she raced downstairs and ran outside.  The was fully alight and her dress was melting into her skin and flesh... She suffered fits of delirium and agony for six days [before her death]."

"... the gigantic verb take... took up forty columns and was the longest entry in the Dictionary at the time. (Though it was overtaken by set which was published two years later; and today, at 586 senses, take ranks as the third longest entry after the verbs go (603 senses) and fun (654 senses)."
Lots of stories, plus lots of diversions to discuss groups of words, and where these readers found them.  This is not a book for everyone, but those who enjoy the OED will take much pleasure from browsing it.  


  1. I love it!! I am porpate often as it is my favorite color and certainly tend to believe in agathism. I didn't know you were a wordie. How exciting!!

  2. awesome work - I am a long time lurker - keep up the God work - (I always check in whenever I find myselves back in these INterenets"

    “ The woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman in every man, and the man who needs to be liberated most is the man in every woman.
    — Magnus Hirschfeld

  3. 'Padding' - There's not a typographical reason, but books are printed with page counts that are multiples of 16. (Sometimes 8). So if your book comes out at 82 pages, you may have to stretch it to 88 or 96, or squidge it down to 80.

  4. Here’s at least one other reader who was underwhelmed by Shea’s book. Something I wrote in 2018: “You read the OED for a year and this is all you came back with? Sigh.”

    I’m halfway through The Dictionary People — great fun, though somewhat exhausting.

    I’m not sure how I found my way to your TYWKIWDBI, but I’m glad I did.

    1. Welcome aboard. I encourage new readers to explore via the "categories" list in the right sidebar, which provides a more focused approach than paging backwards through ever-changing subject matter (but no pocket notebooks as far as I can remember).

    2. Pocket notebooks? I feel seen. : )

    3. When I have time I do sometimes visit the blogs of my readers, for curiosity and for material because readers here have extraordinarily varied interests. On several occasions in the past I have invited participation in "blog awards" -


      And I occasionally invite readers to participate in collective holiday greetings cards. Stay tuned...

  5. I read books on my ebook reader and it has a dictionary. That makes it easy to look up any word that I do not know, or words that I may know but still think it would be fun to see what the dictionary says versus what I know of the word. Sometimes, it seems that I spend more time reading / browsing the dictionary that the ebook. Paging back and forth around the word I initially looked up often yields new words, as does following linked entries in the dictionary. I am sometimes surprised when I look up a word, thinking 'that is too obscure and there can't be a definition for that one', and there is.

  6. There is a podcast called "Something Rhymes with Purple" with Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth where they talk about language and words. "Apricity" is one of their favorite words. Susie Dent is, perhaps, Britain's best known lexicographer from her appearances on the TV show Countdown.

    1. I'll see your "Something Rhymes with Purple" with "A Way With Words" hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. When I'm traveling and can't pick up a public radio station their podcast is what I listen to.

  7. There's an email list, A.Word.A.Day (subscribe at https://wordsmith [dot] org/awad/subscribe.html) that is quite fun. Most weeks there is a theme (this week it is eponyms), with a definition and an illustration. People send in comments, and each weekend there is a newsletter of sorts including the best of those comments, and limericks that have been sent in using the words of the week.


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