What Every Beginning Dictionary Reader Should Know

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 on the ideas, gems, and language reflections that come from them. experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below, Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, shares some tips for beginners.

With the possible exception of the telephone book, I can think of no other book that is so frequently owned, yet so infrequently read, as the dictionary. And given that the phone book tends towards the vocative and sleepy sense, the dictionary is likely to reign supreme over this particular category of “the book everyone has and no one ever reads.” This is both understandable and regrettable.

Why don’t people read dictionaries? At first glance, this seems like a fairly easy question to answer. They are often quite long, the plot leaves something to be desired, and they are not composed to amuse the reader. If you were to ever tell your friends that you are reading the dictionary, it is quite possible that they will look askance at you and perhaps reassess whether the friendship was worth saving.

It’s no wonder I don’t have any friends – I’ve read very little but dictionaries for the last ten years or so. What started as a whimsical foray into word research has turned into a deliciously consuming business. It turns out that reading a dictionary isn’t a sign of burgeoning insanity, an expensive way to improve yourself, or a Sisyphus task – it can be just as enjoyable as reading any other book. Based on my experiences reading excellent (and other not so good) dictionaries, I have compiled a short list of tips for the beginning reader of dictionaries below.

1) Start small.
In his Bibliography of writings 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 straight into reading OED, it may be a good idea to start by reading one of the smaller ones.

Most of the first unilingual English dictionaries, published in the 17th century, were only several hundred pages long. that of Robert Cawdrey A table in alphabetical order, Henry Cockeram English Dictionnary, and that of John Bullokar English exhibitor were all reprinted in the 20th century and can be purchased for a fraction of what any of the originals would cost. Plus, these are all hard word dictionaries and deal almost entirely with unusual vocabulary. Which may be more interesting for someone who is just starting to read dictionaries, rather than exploring the hundreds of different meanings of words like set or go.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can find a reading copy of one of the 18th century lexicographers for a fairly inexpensive price. Any of Nathan Bailey’s many editions English etymological dictionary have a good read. Bailey tried to label as much English as he could, but when he thinks his reader already knows a word, he doesn’t spend too much time on it (the cow is defined as “a well-known beast”). And at 800 odd-numbered pages, it’s a length that is manageable, but will leave you with a sense of accomplishment when done.

2) Keep notes.
Don’t try to remember everything you read. It is inevitable that if you do not write down your favorite words, you will be constantly plagued throughout your life by the words dancing in the far reaches of your brain, just beyond the grasp of memory. Even though I think dictionaries can be read a lot like other books (that you probably don’t take notes on), it’s a terribly distracting thing to always have a word that you can’t really catch. If you don’t write down your favorite words, chances are you’ll spend a lot of your time rereading them looking for them.

3) drink lots of coffee.
Sometimes reading a dictionary is quite an overwhelming experience. I have read dictionaries that have left me overwhelmed with the possibilities of language, in which all of human experience seemed to be laid out before me in alphabetical order, and I wonder why I ever read anything else. But I’m not going to lie to you – it is extraordinarily boring sometimes.

Even the best of dictionaries sometimes have long stretches of words that I find it hard to believe will be loved by anyone, even their mother. But if you skip those sections, there is still a possibility that you will miss a little gem of a word lurking there. For these times, the proper chemical assistance is absolutely essential. I recommend that you start drinking coffee at least half an hour before you start reading, and adjust your dosage according to the part of the alphabet you are currently reading.

I realize that no matter how enjoyable I pretend to be reading a dictionary, I’m unlikely to convince many people to make it a hobby. Many of the more interesting words you learn will be virtually useless, as very few people will know them or care much that you know them. It won’t help you advance your career, and your friends and relatives won’t appreciate being told periodically “ooh! – there is a word for that ”.

But for those of you who are already weird enough that this idea sounded like something you might like to try, I can say that reading dictionaries has given me more pure pleasure than any other type of book. Each is filled with thousands and thousands of stories, answers to questions you’ve been asking yourself for years, and answers to questions you never dreamed of. Once you start reading them, there’s the instantly heartwarming notion that you’ll never run out of something to read again. And if someone questions your choice of reading material, you can always say “at least I don’t read the phone book”.

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