Saturday, October 25, 2008

From Abluvion to Zyxt (A Book Review of "Reading the OED")

Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its supremacy is so immediate.

—Mark Twain, in William Dean Howells, 1906

I love unusual words, especially words that are saturated with history, or words that describe something that I never realized had a word devoted to it (imponderabila, from Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific fits both criteria for me).

I regularly read Michael Quinion's World Wide Words and WordSpy (adorkable! fauxmosexual!), check wordy books out of the library, and spend far too long rambling through the Internets searching for the origins of phrases like "garden sass" or "fall vs. autumn"- as you can tell if you click on the words label in my righthand sidebar. And I was thrilled when both the Saline District library and the AADL offered access to the Oxford English Dictionary online.

So when I saw Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, I knew it was a book that I should check out. And I wasn't disappointed.

The book is ordered alphabetically (duh), but it's not all words. Well, actually, it is all words, there are no pictures in it, but it isn't all definitions. The essays on dictionaries and reading them are wonderful in their own right:

But what about all the things that you cannot do with the electronic version?

You cannot drop the computer on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut. You cannot leave a bookmark with a note on it in a computer and then come upon it after several years and feel happy you've found something you thought you had lost. You cannot get any sort of tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages of a computer. (Maybe some people do get a tactile pleasure from rubbing their computers, but they are not people I have any interest in knowing anything about.)

....I've never looked across the room at my computer and fondly remembered things that I once read in it. I can while away hours at a time just standing in front of my books and relive my favorite passages merely gazing at their spines. I have never walked into a room full of computers, far from home, and immediately felt a warm familiarity come over me, the way I have with every library I've ever set foot in (p. 56-57).

But on to Shea's favorite words! Here's the first entry in the A's:

Abluvion (n.) Substances or things that are washed away.

Chances are you have never stared at the dirty bathwater washing down the drain and wondered, Is there a word for that? but now you will forever be cursed with the knowledge that indeed there is (p. 5).

My favorite in the A's, though is:

Anonymuncule (n.) An anonymous, small-time writer.

This delightful word is the result of combining anonymous with the Latin word homunculus ("little man"), p. 9.

And constult! Why don't people use this word today? It's perfect:

Constult (v.) To act stupidly together

Taking part in an activity that is inordinately stupid just because one's friends are doing it is not the exclusive province of teenagers - it just seems that way.

Shea has a wry voice, and seeing his opinions come through in the commentary on the definitions and his musings about libraries (public and personal) and the people who use them is just fun. This is one of those books I want to keep on that special shelf devoted to books about books.

My only criticism is that it is too short. Shea mentions that he kept track of many more words than he used in his book. While Reading the OED feels like it is a good length (never a chance to get bored!), I wanted more. More weird words to go look up online, more of his gentle snark, more stories about lexographers past and present.

Besides, where else would I ever have learned that the word fizzle originally meant to fart silently? Unless I read the OED myself, anyway.

Oh, and zyxt is an archaic Kentish word meaning "to see", in case you were wondering about that.

Friday, October 10, 2008


I'm in Saline, on a fairly busy street. Do you think my pumpkin's more likely to get smashed if it has the "Yes We Can" or "No More Lies" design from the Yes We Carve site?

I like the fact that Obama's campaign people ask for a mere $5 contribution and encourage you to carve your pumpkin to show your support, though I'm not generally a fan of co-opting holidays for ideological purposes (see this post from Halloween three years ago, and this one). I'll probably stick with my bumper sticker and t-shirt for political purposes, and let the kids carve the traditional triangle eyed faces on their jack-o-lanterns.

Though I do think Obama's graphic artists' designs are way cooler than the McCain ones.

And if you'd like Tina Fey to come to Michigan (instead of Sarah Palin), check out this petition on the Michigan Democratic Party's website.