For the Love of Words

Sometimes I like to read about the man (Ammon Shea) who read the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in one year.  Mind you, the complete OED is not one book; the full version consists of 20 volumes.  Ridiculous yet commendable — he (Shea) liked reading dictionaries (his favorite book is the dictionary) and one day proposed the idea to an editor and made it his job.  Amazing.  I tried reading the (one-volume) dictionary in middle school, but I gave up halfway through A because of all the prefixes.  He read it while taking notes, most of the time in the NY Public Library or the basement of the Hunter College Library, and wrote a book on his insights called, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008). He acknowledges the strangeness of enjoying reading the dictionary, but he also states,

Some people collect matchbox cars or comic books.  Others collect more obviously valuable things, such as rare paintings or cars.  Most of these collections are made up of tangible objects, things to which one can assign some sort of monetary value.

I collect words. ….

As far as hobbies go, it is as most of them are — largely useless.  Contrary to what many self-help books would have you believe, adding a great number of obscure words to your vocabulary will not help you advance in the world.  You will not gain new friends through this kind of endeavor, nor will it help you in the workplace.  At best you might bore your friends and employers, and at worst you will alienate them, or leave them thinking that there is something a little bit wrong with you. …

Some people find it odd that I take such pleasure in an activity that is so inherently Sisyphean.  Of course, I don’t find it odd at all: think about your favorite book, and how endlessly satisfying it would be if that book never really ended.  The dictionary is my favorite book, and even if I did one day manage to read all the way through every dictionary and word book I own, I could always go back to the beginning and start again.

His book is not an analysis of all the words in the OED, but it is a short collection of words that are not (commonly) used, words that are not in a regular dictionary, and “words as curios rather than new words to use in daily conversation, contenting…with the fact that such strange and lovely words exist at all.”  For each word, he adds short reflections and insights, often humorous because he connects the words to how they would/should be used in real life.

Here are some of my favorite words from his list: (they are excerpts from the text)

  • agelastic (n.) a person who never laughs.  Grim, but with fewer wrinkles.
  • airling (n.) a person who is both young and thoughtless.  Although it might well seem redundant to specify a person as both young and thoughtless (how many words do you know for one who is young and thoughtful?), airling does us the favor of employing a certain amount of both gracefulness and economy.
  • apricity (n.) the warmth of the sun in winter.  A strange and lovely word.  Not to be confused with apricate (to bask in the sun), although both come from the Latin apricus, meaning exposed to the sun.
  • atechny (n.) a lack of skill; a lack of knowledge of art.  Reading through the dictionary, I am struck again and again by the fact that many words that describe common things are obscure, while many words that describe obscure things are widely known.  For example, everyone knows the word dinosaur, even though no one has ever seen or met one.  Yet, even though we are faced each and every day with artistic ignorance and lack of skill, very few of us know the word atechny.
  • balter (v.) to dance clumsily.  It’s nice to find a word I can use to explain why I’ve always hated to dance.  I’m a balterer.
  • bully-scribbler (n.) a bullying writer.  It is difficult for me to take the notion of a bullying writer too seriously.  Perhaps once upon a time this was a fearsome thought, but there is good reason why today people think of the oafish thug in the schoolyard when they think of a bully — a punch to the jaw hurts more than an unflattering squib.
  • conjubilant (adj.): being jubilant or rejoicing with another person.  This may look like an odd word, and may even seem like an odd concept, were it not for the fact that were there a word for “rejoicing all alone, because there is no one who will share in your happiness,” that would be even odder.
  • consenescence (n.) “growing old together; general decay.” Perhaps it was unintentional, but it is nonetheless humorous that the OED‘s editors saw fit to include the notions of decaying and growing old together in the same entry.
  • elucubration (n.) studying or writing by candlelight.
  • foreplead (v.) to ask too much in pleading.  You are pleading when you ask for your job back; you are forepleading when you ask for a raise to go with it.
  • gobemouche (n.) one who believes anything, not matter how absurd.  From the French words gober (to swallow) and mouche (fly).
  • grinagog (n.) a person who is constantly grinning.
  • heterophemize (v.) to say something different from what you mean to say. Think back on all the things you’ve said in life that you truly wish you hadn’t.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just claim afterward that you had been heterophemizing, and be instantly forgiven?
  • iatrogenic (adj.) pertaining to symptoms caused unintentionally by a doctor.  I cannot think of a single word that means “cured by a doctor.” This is why I do not go to the doctor.
  • jentacular (adj.) of or pertaining to breakfast. Some of you reading this are no doubt thinking, “Why do I need this silly little word that describes ‘of or relating to breakfast’? The answer is you don’t need it.  But it is also true that you don’t need the overwhelming majority of words you use throughout the day, either, and jentacular is far more charming than most of them.
  • jocoserious (adj.) half serious and half in jest.  Jocoserious is in some way an example of itself — it looks like a very serious word, but it’s really quite silly.
  • mothersome (adj.) anxious or nervous in a way a mother is.  A cynic might notice that there is only one letter difference between mothersome and bothersome.  I, of course, would never draw any parallel between the two.
  • onomatomania (n.) vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word.  Finding a word that so perfectly describes a rather large portion of my everyday existence is one of the things that makes reading the dictionary feel like an intensely personal endeavor.  The book is no longer merely a list of words; suddenly it is a catalog of the foibles of the human condition, and it is speaking directly to me…
  • pandiculation (n.) the act of stretching and extending the limbs, in tiredness or waking.  Everyone does it, and no one knows what to call it.
  • redeless (adj.) not knowing what to do in an emergency.  Redeless has a variety of meanings, but this is the one that speaks to me the most.  In yet another case of the rare thing enjoying a common word and vice versa, it is interesting to note that redeless has largely (or entirely) fallen by the linguistic wayside, while savoir faire (which originally meant “knowing what to do in an emergency”) has survived.
  • sesquihoral (adj.) lasting an hour and a half.  Because sometimes you just don’t feel like saying “an hour and a half.”
  • subtrist (adj.) slightly sad.  I suppose there is really not much difference between this and many others, such as glum or melancholy.  But I like the way subtrist looks and sounds, and all other Romance language seem to have fashionable words like triste, which elegantly convey sadness with a Continental flair.  Sometimes a word does not have a special meaning — it’s enough simply to like its style.
  • sympatetic (n.) a companion one walks with.  I found sympatetic hiding in the middle of a list of words under the prefix sym-.  Discoveries like this one are what make reading the OED from cover to cover worthwhile.
  • tacenda (n.) things not to be mentioned; matters that are passed over in silence.  The incident with the broccoli.  Your Aunt Tilly’s first husband.  Where that scar really came from.
  • toe-cover (n.) a present that is both useless and inexpensive.  We all know that it’s the thought that counts, but sometimes part of that thought should be not giving a useless present that you picked up at the corner store at the last minute.
  • twi-thought (n.) a vague or indistinct thought.  My head is filled with twi-thoughts these days, and all are variations on a single theme:  that word I’ve forgotten, the one flitting around somewhere in the back of my head, teasing my lips and not quite coming close enough to remember.
  • umbriphilous (adj.) fond of the shade.  Although this is a botanical word, used to describe things arboreal, I choose to use it to describe myself.
  • utinam (n.) an earnest wish or yearning.  Utinam is derived from a Latin word of the same spelling, which originally meant “oh, that!”  Etymologies like this one make me doubt that languages are in fact formed in a logical rule-based fashion.
  • videnda (n., pl.) things worth seeing; things that ought to be seen.  What every travel guidebook promises to capture and never actually does.
  • yepsen (n.) the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.  A measurement that has never really caught on like the teaspoon, the yepsen also falls firmly within the category of things for which you never thought there was a word — at least, not until someone interfering busybody like me came along and told you what it was.
  • yesternerve (n.) yesterday evening.  There are a number of words for describing time, well beyond simply saying today, tomorrow, or yesterday.  hesternal: of or relating to yesterday, nudiustertian: of or relating to the day before yesterday, overmorrow: of or relating to the day after tomorrow, postriduan: done on the following day, yestermorn: yesterday morning.
  • zyxt (v.) to see.  There is nothing terribly interesting about zyxt.  It is the second-person singular indicative present form of the verb “to see” in the Kentish dialect and has obviously not been in common use for some time.  …It is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

(I can’t believe I typed them out; this entry wasn’t meant to be this long). (It’s funny how the listed words above are underlined in red because they’re not considered words according to the WordPress dictionary). But anyway, I enjoyed reading Reading the OED because I too love words and I can relate to the author’s struggle in twi-thought, with onomatomania, and heterophemizing.  I too wish I could think of (or knew) the right word for all moments.  If there’s isn’t a word for everything, I’m sure there’s something similar.

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