Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months 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. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, shares some advice for beginners.
With the possible exception of the phone book, I can think of no other book which is so frequently owned, and yet so infrequently read, as the dictionary. And given that the phone book is going the way of the vocative sense and the dodo, it is likely that the dictionary will reign supreme over this peculiar category of ‘the book that everyone has and no one ever reads’. This is both understandable and regrettable.
Why don’t people read dictionaries? On the face of it this seems a rather easy question to answer. They are often quite long, the plot leaves something to be desired, and they are not compiled with the reader’s amusement in mind. If you were to one day announce to your friends that you were reading the dictionary it is quite possible that they would look at you askance, and perhaps re-evaluate whether the friendship was worth saving.
It is no wonder that I have no friends – I’ve been reading very little but dictionaries for the past ten years or so. What began as a whimsical foray into looking for words has turned into an endeavor that is delightfully consuming. Dictionary reading, as it turns out, is not a sign of incipient madness, an onerous means of self-improvement, or a Sisyphean task – it can be just as enjoyable as reading any other book. Based on my experiences reading some great (and some not so great) dictionaries, I’ve herewith compiled a short list of advice for the beginning dictionary reader.
1) Start small.
In his Bibliography of Writing on the English Language, Arthur Kennedy lists 13,402 different works. Only a few thousand of these are dictionaries or word books, but Kennedy’s bibliography was published in 1922 – there have been hundreds, if not thousands of additional dictionaries since then. Rather than dive right into reading the OED, it might be a good idea to begin by reading one of the smaller ones.
Most of the earliest monolingual English dictionaries, published in the 17th century, are only several hundred pages long. Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionarie, and John Bullokar’s English Expositor have all been reprinted in the 20th century, and can be bought for a fraction of what one of the originals would cost. Furthermore, they are all hard-word dictionaries, and deal almost entirely with unusual vocabulary. Which can be more interesting to someone who is just beginning to read dictionaries, rather than exploring the hundreds of different meanings of words such as set or go.
If you are feeling more ambitious, you can find a reading copy of one of the 18th century lexicographers for not too dear a price. Any of the many editions of Nathan Bailey’s Etymological English Dictionary make for fine reading. Bailey did make an attempt to catalogue as much of the English language as he can, but when he thinks that his reader already knows a word he doesn’t devote too much time to it (cow is defined as ‘a beast well known’). And at 800-odd pages it is of a length that is manageable, yet will leave you with a feeling of accomplishment when finished.
2) Keep notes.
Do not attempt to remember everything you read. It is inevitable that if you do not write your favorite words down you will be constantly plagued as you go through life by the words that dance about on the edge of your brain, just past the reach of memory. Even though I think that dictionaries can be read much like other books (which you most likely do not keep notes on), it is a terribly distracting thing to always have some word that you cannot quite grasp. If you do not write down your favorite words it is quite likely that you will spend much of your time re-reading in search of them.
3) Drink plenty of Coffee.
Sometimes reading a dictionary is an utterly transporting experience. I’ve read dictionaries which left me overwhelmed by the possibilities of language, in which all of the human experience seemed to be laid out in front of me in alphabetized rows, and I’ll wonder why I ever read anything else. But I won’t lie to you – sometimes it is extraordinarily boring.
Even the best of dictionaries will have occasional long stretches of words for which I have difficulty believing that they could be loved by anyone, even their mothers. But if you skip over these sections there is always the possibility that you will miss some gem of a word that has been hiding there. For these moments the proper chemical assistance is absolutely essential. I recommend that you begin drinking coffee at least a half hour before starting to read, and adjust your dosage according to what part of the alphabet you are currently reading.
I realize that no matter how enjoyable I claim dictionary reading to be, it is unlikely that I will convince many people to take it up as a hobby. A large number of the most interesting words you learn will be practically useless, as very few other people will be familiar with them, or much care that you know them. It will not help you advance your career, and your friends and loved ones will not appreciate periodically being told ‘ooh! – there’s a word for that’.
But for those few of you out there who are already odd enough that this idea sounds like something you might like to try, I can say that reading dictionaries has given me more pure enjoyment than any other type of book. Every one is filled with thousands and thousands of stories, the answers to questions that you’ve had for years, and the answers to questions you’ve never dreamed of. Once you begin to read them there is the instantly comforting notion that you will never again be at a loss for something to read. And should anyone question your choice of reading material, you can always say ‘at least I’m not reading the phone book.’