Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading the OED

May is a non-fiction month for the student services blog. Russell really enjoyed this book so, since the library owns a copy, I decided it should be the book of the month.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED is a bit difficult to describe. It is the story of a man who spent a year reading the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes and nearly 22,000 pages) and in that way it is a memoir of a year spent immersed in the English language's largest dictionary. Reading the OED is also the vehicle by which author Ammon Shea shares the hidden gems he found while reading the immense dictionary, words like psithurism (the whispering of leaves moved by the wind) and inadvertist (one who persistently fails to take notice of things). Shea's comments on these words (sometimes snarky, sometimes not) are memorable and it is his personality that makes Reading the OED such a great read.

While reading Reading the OED will do nothing to inspire one to undertake Shea's great task (his list of reading-inspired complaints will surely dissuade even his biggest fans), it will pique one's interest in lexicography (dictionary-writing) and in words in general. Checking the OED's word of the day may become habit. As Shea and that may lead to browsing the print or online versions, for as Shea relates, the OED “tickles the familiar, telling me once again about words that I’ve known for years and forgotten that I forgot. It tells me things that I know I knew about words, but with additional insights that I have blithely ignored over the years. And it tells me things about words that I never could have imagined on my own” (96).

Some of my favorite words featured in Reading the OED are keck (to make that cat-coughing-up-a-hairball noise), petrichor (the smell after the rain), and of course psithurism mentioned above.


  1. This looks really interesting. There is on way I could stick to reading even a small section of the OED. Have you read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester?

  2. TRC, I have read 'The Professor and the Madman.' Unfortunately I read it after 'The Meaning of Everything' and so was a bit disappointed in it. I though 'Meaning' was stellar, but Winchester bit off a bit more than he could chew in 'Professor and'.