If you have a lot of time and not much of a social life, then quit your job and take a year off to read the Oxford English Dictionary. That is what Ammon Shea did. He documents some of his favorite words in his book “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages”
In 2009 Yale University Library and Oxford University Press hosted a panel discussion to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Panelists included Ammon Shea, Simon Winchester and Jesse Sheidlower.
Simon Winchester began with an interesting historical overview of the OED. He explained several important dates.
the first proper dictionary – 1604
Simon said that this dictionary was created in 1604 the same year of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. He explained that before that time most dictionaries were translating dictionaries. A school master came up with the idea of preparing a dictionary with alphabetical listings of words with their definitions. It was called “A Dictionary of Hard and Unusual Words Designed for Ladies, Gentlewomen and Other Unskillful Persons.” There were 2000 words in that first dictionary.
the first attempt to cover all of the words – 1755
The next major dictionary was published in 1755. It took Samuel Johnson’s 5 member team 6 years to create 2 volumes known as “The Dictionary”
Simon gave an entertaining tale of Johnson’s famous definition of an elephant – something that he had never seen in real life.
He also explained that in The Dictionary Johnson defined oats as a “grain commonly given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people.”
In 1857 a committee met every month to look at words that were not in Johnson’s dictionary. They decided to assemble a better dictionary. The project took 70 years.
1928 – Completed Dictionary
Simon ends his speech with the 1928 dictionary. This dictionary had 12 volumes and 414,000 words.
The next panelist was Ammon Shea who suggested that some words are emotional. He gave the example “desideratum” – a thing which you no longer have but you wish that you did.
He also gave examples of words with unintentional humor like “unbepissed” – not having been urinated upon. He asked the audience “when was this ever a necessary word?”
In his speech Ammon made reading the dictionary appear to be more like reading a novel, rather than something like a phone book. He freely admitted that the prefix “un” goes on for 450 pages and that can be boring, but the tidbits of knowledge found in between are worth the read like “unasinous” – being equal to each other in stupidity and “unlove” – to stop loving somebody.
The final panelist, Jesse Sheidlower, discussed the revision of the OED. The current revision began in the 1990’s. In 2000 they began publishing the OED 3 online. He explained that it took 8 years just to do the letters “M-R”.
If you are interested in language, I highly recommend watching this video.
What are you going to read next?