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Reading the OED: An Interview with Ammon Shea

John McGrath built and maintains Wordie.org, a collaborative dictionary and social network for logophiles. By day he’s a software developer at Curbed.com. McGrath has kindly agreed to be the first in our series of guest language bloggers.


Through what must have been a series of clerical errors akin to Major Major Major Major’s promotion by an “IBM machine with a sense of humor,” OUPblog has asked me to write a guest post.

I’m manifestly unqualified to do so–I’m a programmer, and am closer to being that IBM machine than a lexicographer. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I am no Ben Zimmer.

But my housekeeping duties at Wordie.org offer a ringside view of the lexisphere, which is how I discovered “Depraved and Insulting English,” by Peter Novobatsky and Ammon Shea. While posting about that delightful book I came across another gem: Ammon has spent the past year reading all 20 volumes of the OED and writing a book about it, “Reading the OED,” to be released by Perigree this summer. I was enchanted by the project, and emailed Ammon to ask him what it’s like to read 300,000 dictionary entries.

Q: Can you give me a quick bio? I know you as the author of “Depraved and Insulting English.” Are you a lexicographer?

Ammon Shea: “Depraved and Insulting English” (which I co-wrote with Peter Novobatzky) was initially published as two separate books [“Depraved English” and “Insulting English” -JM]. In addition to writing these books my occupation has been furniture mover in New York, gondolier in San Diego, street musician in Paris, and similar things. My preoccupation, for the past decade, has been reading dictionaries.

I am not myself a lexicographer, but my girlfriend was, and she’s rubbed off on me.

Q: Does San Diego have canals? And what do you play?

readingtheoed.jpgAS: San Diego does not have any canals. But it does have a good number of docks, especially on the bay side. There was man there who had just retired from running a prop studio in Hollywood, and he decided that what he wanted to do was build gondolas. So he and I built a couple of them and we’d row people about the docks by the yacht clubs.

I used to be a jazz saxophonist, which is a great way to make a living and a terrible way to pay the rent – one of the reasons I gave it up was that the only time I ever made a decent living at it was playing on the streets and the subways in Paris.

Q: Where did the idea of reading the OED come from?

AS: When I first began reading dictionaries it was quickly apparent that reading a lexicon is considerably more fun than one might imagine. Once I’d established that it was enjoyable rather than onerous the natural next step was to read longer and longer dictionaries. I find few things in life more depressing than coming to the end of a good book; the OED was attractive in part because I knew that would take quite some time.

Also, whenever I looked up a word in the OED I would think of something else to look for, and then I would get caught up in the pages, a hour has gone by and although I’ve found some wonderful things I’m still haunted by the thought that the rest of this dictionary has other wonderful things in it that I haven’t yet read. So I decided that I would read the whole thing to sate my curiosity about all those unread pages.

Q: How long did it take?

AS: I haven’t worked out the hours, but it was a full-time project for about a year. Most weeks I was reading 9 or 10 hours a day, five days a week.

Q: Did this hold your interest all the way through, or did you have to slog you way through parts?

AS: It was remarkably constant in keeping my interest. I would sometimes wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and begin reading, just because I almost always had a feeling that I was about to get to something terribly interesting.

That being said, the letter Q was boring as hell. And I didn’t much care for X either.

Q: Were you intending to write the book at the outset of your reading? How and when did the relationship with Perigree come about?

AS: I was planning on writing a book about it from the start. I have a much easier time working at something if I have a definite goal in mind, and signing a book contract will provide that.

The relationship with Perigee came from the fact that Marian Lizzi, who had been my editor for a previous book, was recently named editor-in-chief, and so I thought they might be sympathetic to the idea of this book.

Q: Can you tell us some favorite words or citations you found?

AS: Here is a small list of some of my favorite words that were buried in the dictionary.

Apricity – The warmth of the sun in winter
Bouffage – An enjoyable or satisfying meal
Father-waur – Being worse than one’s father
Ignotism – A mistake that is made from ignorance
Introuvable – Not capable of being found, said specifically of books.
Obmutescence – The state or condition of obstinately or willfully refusing to speak.
Onomatomania – Vexation with being unable to find the right word.
Peracme – The point at which one’s prime has passed
Postvide – To make plans for an event only after it has happened
Psithurism – The sound of leaves moved by the wind.
Sialoquent -Someone who spits when they speak.
Velleity – A mere wish or desire for something, unaccompanied by any action of effort.

Q: Did you find many errors? Any more dords?

AS: I did find some errors, although no ghost words such as dord. At first I was very excited when I found mistakes, and felt pretty pleased with myself. That was short-lived. When I checked the online version – in which they’ve started releasing OED 3 (they’ve done M-P so far) – I found that the editors had already corrected all the errors that I had found.

Given the size and the complexity of the work, there are remarkably few errors. But I do have a sneaking suspicion that they may be mistaken in defining jive-ass as ‘a person who loves fun or excitement’.

Q: Has this exposure to dictionaries given you any thoughts or insights into the state or nature of lexicography? Are there changes you’d like to make in the OED or in dictionaries in general, either specific or structural?

AS: I’m fairly certain that if I answer these questions I will say something that I will later regret. To answer the first question as briefly as possible, I would say that one insight that I’ve had about lexicography is that it is fun. Dictionaries are fun. They really are amazing creatures, and I think that they are underused. A number of highly educated and dedicated people have worked terribly hard at filling these books with all sorts of fascinating information about the language we use, and most of us just use them to see if we’re spelling a word correctly; it’s like using a great novel as a paperweight.

In response to the second question, I don’t think that I would change anything. Dictionaries are already constantly changing, and they don’t need any advice from me.

Q: Thoughts on how the OED could improve its web presence?

AS: What I would love is if they would go back and re-insert all the material that the OUP delegates made James Murray leave out of the dictionary, when they were trying to keep its size down, in the 19th century.

Q: Have you read other dictionaries? Are you a serial reader of reference books?

AS: I’m afraid that I could be called a serial reader of reference books. The first dictionary I read was Webster’s Second New International. This proved to be so entertaining that I then read the sequel, Webster’s Third New International. Then I plowed through some of the older dictionaries, such as Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, and a few of the hard word dictionaries of the 17th century.

If you add up all of the regular dictionaries, medical dictionaries, glossaries, and assorted word lists, I would say that I’ve read several dozen over the past ten years.

One might imagine that if you’ve read one dictionary, you’ve read them all, but this really isn’t the case. Each dictionary has its own character and its own quirks, and the more of them I read the more apparent this becomes.

Q: Do you have any other projects that will derive from this, other than the book? It would make for good radio.

AS: It’s not obvious what exactly comes from spending a full year of my life reading the dictionary, other than this book. Presumably, fame and fortune. I’m herewith soliciting ideas for means to such fame/fortune on my website, ammonshea.com .

Q: Do you know of anyone else who has done this? Maybe you’re part of a book club?

AS: There must be people as obsessed with this dictionary as I am, but I’ve never made their acquaintance. Maybe we’re all part of the club, but we’re also all socially maladjusted enough that it is unlikely that we’ll ever meet.

Q: Is your reading always so directed? What other sorts of literary interests do you have? By the time you finished, were you dying for a narrative arc? Or something a bit less… highbrow? South Park?

AS: Usually, when I’m not reading a dictionary I’m reading books about dictionaries. Other than that, my interests are far-ranging, so long as the story or the telling of it is interesting. Recently I’ve been reading the diaries of one of the brothers that ran Merriam-Webster in the 19th century, and several children’s books by William Steig.

Actually, I thought there was a strong narrative arc in the OED itself: not a particularly linear one, but clear stories, or tales, therein. Most letters were edited by a single editor, so as you read through the volumes subtle stylistic differences arise. Different letters are populated by different prefixes, and this lends the worlds of each individual letter distinct tones.

And the OED is so full of literature that it’s impossible to not feel as though you’re ingesting dozens of books in reading it. A huge amount of what Shakespeare wrote is included in the citations in the OED. It may be chopped up and sprinkled about, but it’s still there. I’ve probably read The Tempest and Macbeth backwards, sideways, and upside down. So although there is no real plot in the OED, there are arcs. Of course, it’s possible that it was simply my own reading that formed the arc – getting more excited about finishing, experiencing highs and lulls – and I attributed it to the dictionary.

Ben Zimmer is taking a much needed vacation. In the meantime check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

Recent Comments

  1. Charles Hodgson

    “considerably more fun than one might imagine”
    I’ll second that!

  2. Suzie

    Fantastic interview! Shea’s book is being added to my “to-read” list right now!

  3. adele

    It is a grand interview and i enjoyed hearing about Ammon Shea!
    I’ll hope to see him sometime on c-span,”Book Notes” program.

  4. Yana

    It’s interesting that Shea mentions that the OED had arcs, if not a plot. A.J. Jacobs mentions exactly the same thing in The Know-It-All, which is based on a similar premise (he reads the entire Encylopaedia Britannica). I wonder if it reflects a human tendency to make sense of the world and connect things that really have no meaning.

  5. dilip ghosh

    This is the ultimate dream of a wordsearcherand .I am really envy of mr amman shea for his commanding masyery in this book.

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