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Absurd Entries in the OED: An Introduction To Ammon Shea

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few readingtheoed.jpgmonths he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July.

All dictionaries have mistakes. Ghost words creep in, there are occasional misspellings, or perhaps the printer was hung over one day and misplaced some punctuation. In addition to these normal forms of human error there are others that are created by language, as it continues its inexorable change, rendering definitions and spellings obsolete. Furthermore, as the science of lexicography itself advances, certain things, such as etymologies, that made sense a hundred years ago, begin to look suspect in a modern light.

The OED is certainly not exempt from this immutable aspect of lexicography – it does have errors, although I like to think that it has less than its fair share. As the entire thing is now being edited I’ve seen those few errors that I noted disappearing from its text. I don’t begrudge the editors their desire to improve the dictionary, and I’m happy to see the errors removed. But there is another type of entry that is also being edited out, and although it makes sense to continue with these removals, I’m saddened to see them go. I am referring to the Absurd Entries.

Absurd Entries is the name that I gave to a certain class of definition that I would come across every so often when reading the OED. They are rarer than the mistakes, and considerably more fun to read. These are the extremely rare moments when the OED does something that is so inexplicable that you have to close the book and check the cover to make sure that it is indeed the same book that you thought. I have decided, without giving too much thought to the matter, to divide them into two separate categories: ‘Blatant Disregard for the Reader’s Level of Education’ and ‘What Were They Thinking?’

In the category of Blatant Disregard, the past editors of the OED had seemingly come to the conclusion that since they sat around all day reading about words, accruing a monstrous knowledge of vocabulary, their readers must have done the same, and therefore it was not necessary to talk down to anyone with the definition. For instance trondhjemite is defined as ‘Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase’. I have my doubts as to whether anyone has ever thought to themselves ‘I wonder what trondhjemite means?’ But if someone did, and went to look it up in the OED, it seems unlikely that this definition would clear things up much.

In a similar vein, self-feeling is defined as ‘used to render coenaethesis’, and occupatio is simply ‘preterition’. (I should add that in the online version both coenaethesis and preterition are linked to definitions, which feels a bit like cheating) The word syllogism has a fairly simple and informative definition, and the OED even thoughtfully provides an example of a syllogism at the end of it. Which is written entirely in Latin. Although for sheer incomprehensibility, I do not think that I have seen many entries that can beat the masterful one that was created for the curious word disghibelline – ‘To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.’

Although it was amusing to read these entries, they could also be demoralizing, leaving me feeling as though I was less educated after reading the dictionary. The entries in the category of ‘What were they thinking’ merely made me laugh, albeit in a confused sort of way. For instance, the delightful word rufty-tufty, which starts out with a well-crafted and succinct definition in sense a (‘Rude, rough’) and then seems to veer into sing-song nonsense with sense b (‘Hey-day, hoity-toity’). Unberufen is treated in a similarly fantastic fashion, with its entire definition reading as follows: ‘‘Touch wood!’ (TOUCH v. 29b).’

In a rather unconventional bit of lexicography the word scindapse has no definition at all, but there is a nice little etymology which informs the reader that it comes from a Greek word which means ‘a ‘thingumbob’, a what-d’ye-call-it.’

I’ll confess that on several occasions I thought that the editors of the OED were having a joke at the reader’s expense. The entry for unpoetic gives no definition, but there is a note that tells the reader to ‘cf. next.’ The reader dutifully looks ahead to the next entry which is unpoetical, the definition of which reads ‘cf. prev.’ Or when James Murray used a list of eight different word to define a single sense of the word cannily (‘Sagaciously, skilfully, prudently; cautiously, slily; gently, softly; comfortably’) and then tacked on an etc. at the end, for good measure.

I am afraid that as the edit of the OED continues, these bits of absurdity will be excised, along with any outright errors that the editors find. It will obviously be an improvement, at least in terms of improving the clarity of these definitions. Yet the whimsical anthropomorphizer in me is sad to see that murinoid has had its definition changed from ‘Resembling the mouse or its allies’ to ‘Resembling a mouse; (Zool.) of or belonging to the subfamily Murinae…’ When I read the first definition I found myself afterwards musing about who the allies of the mouse were, whether they had previously been enemies, and who it was they were allied against; after I read the new definition I did not find my imagination tickled in the same way.

There is more than enough scholarship, clarity, and erudition already in the OED; it can afford to keep a few of these Absurd Entries, if only to provide the occasional belly laugh for future readers.

Recent Comments

  1. Cassie

    I can’t wait for this book! If it’s even close to as funny as A.J. Jacobs’ “The Know It All” (in which he reads the Encyclopedia Britannica) it’ll be fantastic.

  2. Jamie McCarthy

    I’m sure the OED writers snuck in many words which don’t actually exist, and made up fake definitions and etymologies for them. They’re bread crumbs to prove authorship in case of copyright violations. Map-makers invent nonexistent tiny roads and rivers for that same purpose, I’m told.

    Sufficiently ostentatious definitions like “leucocratic tonalite” might serve the same purpose without even being fictional.

    Wait… is “snuck” a word? Dammit!

  3. [...] Shea investigates the horrors lurking in the dictionary. [...]

  4. Giuseppe

    What’s so “incomprehensible” about Guelphs and Ghibellines, though? They’re hardly obscure specialist terms, and a minute spent doing a google search and reading the first sentence of the first search result would have been enough to clarify the meaning of that phrase.
    The same can’t be said of entries such as trondhjemite, which I would argue are much more incomprehensible.

  5. Aaron Harnly

    Did you maybe misspell ‘coenaesthesis’ as ‘coenaethesis’ (i.e. lost an ‘s’ in there)? Since this page is one of only three Google hits for the latter, I’m guessing yes. Not that I would have known how to spell it.

  6. [...] Entries in the OED Trondhjemite is defined as ‘Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is [...]

  7. This is one of the web’s most interesting stories on Thu 20th Mar 2008…

    These are the web’s most talked about URLs on Thu 20th Mar 2008. The current winner is …..

  8. OED

    [...] Absurd entries in the OED. (via) No Comments, Comment or Ping [...]

  9. [...] Shea, in the Oxford University Press blog, writes about some of the weird stuff he found while reading the Oxford English Dictionary: I’ll confess that on several occasions I thought [...]

  10. [...] Absurd Entries in the OED (via DF) 7:20 pm comment [...]

  11. Cole

    Giuseppe, I’d wager the vast majority of English speakers with a full university education have never encountered ‘the Guelphs and Ghibellines’ in their entire life. The fact that it can be Googled is obviously irrelevant.

  12. Geology advocate

    Come on, the OED editors are just writing to their audience. Anyone who *does* wonder what trondhjemite is (I have), will probably know what the other words mean, and can therefore make sense of the definition. Same thing goes for disghibelline.

    I think if you were actually interested in the meanings of leucocratic, tonalite, or plagioclase, Guiseppe, you’d establish the meaning of trondhjemite using Google or Wikipedia rapidly enough as well.

  13. Simon

    A bit of a serrindipitus line of the front page of the oed.

    “On 13 March, and after eight years of publishing revised material in the range M to quit shilling”

    Not sure what to make of it, but I found it amusing.

  14. mollymooly

    I’d wager the vast majority of English speakers with a full university education in 1928 knew full well who the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were, while perhaps not being much good at googling.

  15. yesteray

    The words disghibelline and trondhjemite are technical terms and as such they have precise technical meanings. Anyone who was looking to know what they meant would also be likely to have the necessary technical vocabulary to understand the definitions.

    A lay definition such as “trondhjemite – an igneous rock originally identified from samples taken in the vicinity of Trondheim, Norway” is less precise than the given definition. If both definitions were included, then there are now twice as many words devoted to defining a word that no one Ammon Shea knows would ever look up.

  16. [...] Absurd Entries in the OED: An Introduction To Ammon Shea : OUPblog (tags: article humor language bookreview) [...]

  17. [...] “…the whimsical anthropomorphizer in me is sad to see that murinoid has had its definition changed from ‘Resembling the mouse or its allies’ to ‘Resembling a mouse; (Zool.) of or belonging to the subfamily Murinae…’ When I read the first definition I found myself afterwards musing about who the allies of the mouse were, whether they had previously been enemies, and who it was they were allied against; after I read the new definition I did not find my imagination tickled in the same way.” – Absurd Entries in the OED: An introduction to Ammon Shea [...]

  18. [...] that for a premise for a book… or a reality show! He’s posted something on the Absurd Entries in the OED. The whole premise is kind of absurd, but you know… I can’t resist a good OED post. Por [...]

  19. Giuseppe

    “Giuseppe, I’d wager the vast majority of English speakers with a full university education have never encountered ‘the Guelphs and Ghibellines’ in their entire life.”

    Then they can simply look them up in an encyclopedia (online or not). It’s hardly the OED’s fault if they (apparently) don’t know much at all about medieval history, the kind of which is taught in high schools in many countries.

    “The fact that it can be Googled is obviously irrelevant.”

    No, it is not.

  20. MattF

    About putting fictitious entries into reference works for copyright purposes– a local map company inserted a mythical ‘Usufruct Road’ into its maps for just that reason.

  21. [...] This is a fun little article written by someone who just spent a year of his life reading the Oxford English Dictionary. All dictionaries have mistakes…. The OED is certainly not exempt from this immutable aspect of lexicography – it does have errors, although I like to think that it has less than its fair share. As the entire thing is now being edited I’ve seen those few errors that I noted disappearing from its text. I don’t begrudge the editors their desire to improve the dictionary, and I’m happy to see the errors removed. But there is another type of entry that is also being edited out, and although it makes sense to continue with these removals, I’m saddened to see them go. I am referring to the Absurd Entries. [...]

  22. Cole

    You people must live in a magical land of education. University students in the USA have, I assure you, never even heard of the English Civil War, much less the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. And the idea that any medieval history would ever be taught in an ordinary American high school is so absurd it’s almost beneath comment.

  23. llywrch

    Well, this entry didn’t list the kind of slyness that I was expecting. Years ago, I was told that the traditional rivalry between Eton & Harrow played out within the pages of this august tome in the following manner. If a reader looked up “Eton”, there would be a wealth of words created with the name of that school; however, “Harrow” was limited to one terse entry: “A device for breaking clods upon.”

    I do not know if this is true, or just an urban myth. I don’t own a copy of the OED, & whenever I’ve been at the public or university library, I’ve never thought to look these entries up.

    Geoff

  24. c

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictitious_entry for more about made-up encyclopedia or dictionary entries, trap streets on maps, and more.

  25. Andrew Dunning

    Another one of my favourites is blunderbuss: “A short gun with a large bore, firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded, in civilized countries, by other fire-arms.)” It has the distinction of being quoted by J. R. R. Tolkien in Farmer Giles of Ham.

  26. Vicki

    I got my university education in the U.S., and I know about Guelphs and Ghibellines. Yes, it’s a history degree, but I am not a medievalist. Nor is either the Oxford University Press, or that university, American. Even if they were, they would not be obliged to provide an entire history lesson in every brief entry.

    It being an English dictionary, I would think an example syllogism in this language a good idea. But the “unpoetic”/”unpoetical” pair are admirable.

  27. bellatrys

    Is the OED a specifically geological dictionary?

    No?

    Then it’s highly unlikely that “Anyone who was looking to know what they meant would also be likely to have the necessary technical vocabulary to understand the definitions,” ie leucocratic tonalite, plagioclase, oligoclase – none of which do I recognize, and I am a bit of an amateur rockhound, and since people who are NOT geology majors are likely to be using the OED to find out words (and likely so for the past 80-odd years, too), then the “lay” definition may be less “precise” but is certainly going to be more useful to the majority of users – the ones who already know what “leucocratic tonalite,” “plagioclase,” and “oligoclase” mean aren’t going to be looking up “trondhjemite,” or probably not in the OED, they have their own specific (and precise) reference books. As it stands, it’s the sort of useless requiring-extra-textual sources definition I would more expect to see (as I have seen in the past) from a definition of matters sexual (old dictionaries loving the opaque and recursive trick to avoid revealing anything that might bring a blush to the cheek of the young person attempting to inform themselves via “looking it up.”)

    Amon, for the sake of argument, what’s the OED def of “marble” look like? Is it just as opaque? What about “mica”? (Here via Making Light.)

    A lay definition such as “trondhjemite – an igneous rock originally identified from samples taken in the vicinity of Trondheim, Norway” is less precise than the given definition. If both definitions were included, then there are now twice as many words devoted to defining a word that no one Ammon Shea knows would ever look up.

  28. Kalleh

    I am very excited to read this book. On Wordcraft, we have been in contact with Ammon Shea before his and Novobatzky’s discussion of “epicaricacy” in their “Depraved and Insulting English” book. While the word was included in Nathaniel Bailey’s “Universal Etymological English Dictionary,” it has never appeared in the OED. I wonder if Shea will address words that aren’t in the OED, such as this one. Either way, it will become a part of my library!

  29. Kalleh

    I am very excited to read this book. On Wordcraft, we have been in contact with Ammon Shea about his and Novobatzky’s discussion of “epicaricacy” in their “Depraved and Insulting English” book. While the word was included in Nathaniel Bailey’s “Universal Etymological English Dictionary,” it has never appeared in the OED. I wonder if Shea will address words that aren’t in the OED, such as this one. Either way, his book will become a part of my library!

  30. ottocrat

    What’s “incomprehensible” about “to distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline?”

    Not only does it make perfect sense as a definition, it also neatly alludes to the word’s etymology within the definition.

  31. [...] Absurd Entries in the OED: An Introduction To Ammon Shea : OUPblog (tags: funny read reading oed dictionary lexicography humor words unpoetical) This entry is filed under Links. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. Leave a Reply [...]

  32. Josh

    Let me assure the America-haters that in 1984 in an Ohio public high school, I was in a class that read the Inferno and consequently knew of the existence of Guelphs and Ghibellines. Dante was also taught in the U.S. university I attended and was a favorite of Italian-American kids wanting to learn of their ancestral culture.

  33. Mark Peters

    My own obsession with the OED suddenly feels very inadequate and small. I can’t wait for this book!

  34. [...] also posting to the Oxford University Press blog about it, and a couple days ago he posted Absurd Entries in the OED: Absurd Entries is the name that I gave to a certain class of definition that I would come across [...]

  35. [...] Absurd Entries in the OED: An Introduction To Ammon Shea : OUPblog (tags: funny reading book dictionary oed humor) No Tags This entry was written by del.icio.us and posted on March 23, 2008 at 12:18 am and filed under del.icio.us links. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « links for 2008-03-21 [...]

  36. Cassandra

    Cole said :
    University students in the USA have, I assure you, never even heard of the English Civil War, much less the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. And the idea that any medieval history would ever be taught in an ordinary American high school is so absurd it’s almost beneath comment.

    I agree that it’s probably the exception now rather than the rule, but I learned quite a lot of medieval history in high school; the Guelphs were ringing a bell.

    I’d rather assume that I live in a magical land of education and occasionally be disappointed than live in a magical land of oversimplfication and blanket generalizations.

  37. Ole Phat Stu

    Sounds like Esquivalience to me ;-)

  38. Lila

    Here in the magical land of education, i.e. the state of Georgia, USA, I learned about the Guelphs and Ghibellines while studying Dante in an undergraduate literature course.

    Really, they’re not as obscure as you think.

  39. James Andrews

    It’s worth mentioning that the OED was written for a predominantly English or British audience and so some things that may appear obscure to US eyes are simply part of the culture here. Two of the definitions that you picked out for particular absurdity didn’t raise an eyebrow:

    “Touch wood!” is widely used in the UK and therefore the definition appears to be the clearest, most succinct explanation.

    Similarly, “Hoity-toity” is still in fairly common use (unlike “Rufty-tufty”), albeit more so with older generations or as regional colloquialism – it appears to be dying out along with the class system. In this case, both the original term and the definition are often used in a humorous way; strongly anchored in the world of Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Ealing comedies.

    With the huge change in British culture over the last 50 years, I’m sure it’ll only take another generation before these words disappear from common parlance.

  40. [...] few days ago, I happened on a blog entry on the Oxford Unitversity Press site called by ‘Absurd Entries in the OED’, and the [...]

  41. Kaleberg

    Overall, I think the OED does a great job. Sure, I may have to look up a few things to figure out what the definition means, but that’s part of learning. You don’t look things up in a dictionary to get stupid.

    One time, I started with a Larousse trying to figure out what ague miliare meant. The Larousse took me to English with miliary fever, but what was miliary? The OED got me to a fever with barley like pustules. A medical encyclopedia suggested that this was tuberculosis, but then, I read an article in a medical journal saying that this was wrong, but it didn’t say what miliary fever was. I gather that no one really knows since the last case reported under that name was in the 19th century.

    I even like the way the OED handles the really obscure words, like smollet. They just say “meaning uncertain”. So much for being able to look them up in a dictionary. I even compiled a short list of words with uncertain meanings.

    http://www.kaleberg.com/pages/kaleberg-07-12.php#entry%2007%2012%2010%2006

  42. [...] Absurd entries in the OED, via DF. [...]

  43. tmd

    1. Recalling the words “Guelph” and “Ghibelline” and remembering the history surrounding them are two different things. I got them in history, read Dante, and have a vague impression of medieval conflict, but I’m twenty years out of high school.

    2. America has no Middle Ages, and therefore no particular commitment to medieval history, except whatever is necessary to contextualize our literary canon. How much do they teach in European schools about the facts surrounding the Reconstruction, or the Spanish-American War? I haven’t inquired, but I’m guessing not much.

    3. Hardbound copies of the OED are everywhere now that libraries have gone to digital. If you are willing to cripple yourself in the service of odd language, you can find it almost anywhere.

  44. zachrahan

    “Allies” used to have a specific zoological meaning (see OED definition 6 for Ally or Alliance) — a related grouping of species. So “Mouse or its allies” would mean “Mus musculus and taxonomically related species.” It is a nice turn of phrase, though, seen often in Darwin (who writes beautifully), and I’m sorry to see it go, both from the OED and from biological language in general.

  45. DV

    “For instance trondhjemite is defined as ‘Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase’.”

    In fairness, as long as the OED covers each of the four jargon words in simpler terms (or in terms of words that are ultimately defined more simply in the OED), I don’t have a particular problem with this.

    Proper use of “jargon tree” (a term I just made up) could save considerable space. It might be better to use this approach, rather than explaining everything so that a layperson can understand without chasing up other references: in the case of trondhjemite, this would lead to rather a long definition.

    Alternatively, a mixed approach could be used so that a precise definition would be available for someone who cared for it, and a less-precise but easily understood definition was also available. e.g. “A particular category of rock: specifically, any leucocratic…” etc

    Obviously, circularity is to be avoided. The jargon tree should eventually lead one to simple English terms.

  46. [...] OED’s definition of trondhjemite: Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is [...]

  47. Stephen Goranson

    OED online “poontang, n.” reads “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S. in African-American usage),” but then, in Etymology, continues, “[Origin uncertain; perh.

  48. Stephen

    [the previous post was truncated]
    OED online “poontang, n.” reads “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S. in African-American usage),” but then, in Etymology, continues, “[Origin uncertain; perh.

  49. Steve

    Well, there you go: geologists don’t do mediaeval history, and Dante’s fans don’t do rocks. Except, maybe a bit, and well outside the comprehension of most of the ones who don’t.

    Anyway, for fun dictionary entries, Chambers’ is the one to go to:’a cake long in shape but short in duration’ for “eclair”, for example.

  50. Kathleen Shea

    I’m so proud.

  51. [...] “Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase.” Yeah, some of those definitions in the OED need some… well, apparently they need some translation into English. I guess I was wrong about what that E stood for. (And if you knew what word that definition was for without clicking through, slap yourself. No really. Slap yourself.) [...]

  52. [...] blog della Oxford University Press trovate qualche pagina del [...]

  53. [...] Read more of Shea’s introductory blog entry, and be sure to consult an excerpt from Reading the OED, Ammon’s favorite words, hardcore dictionaries, and related entries by Ammon Shea. [...]

  54. [...] Interview with Ammon Shea. His first article on the OED site. [...]

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