RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ammon Shea is a word-nerd. He was a furniture mover for a long time, but the budding writer spent his free time reading, and much of it reading dictionaries.
One day he decided to take an entire year, eight hours a day, to pore over 20 volumes. That would be the entire "Oxford English Dictionary," which he did in a basement library in Manhattan. Ammon Shea joins us from New York, and we ask him why.
Mr. AMMON SHEA (Author, "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages"): What really attracted me to it is that, like many people who love to read, I have this feeling of kind of insipient sadness when I'm coming to the end of a book and I realize that soon, I will no longer have this book to read. And so I figured if I was reading a book that was almost 22,000 pages long, that that feeling would take significantly longer to come around.
MONTAGNE: In a way, that sounds like hard work.
Ms. SHEA: Well, it sounds like a kind of monastic, you know, deprived existence, perhaps, but I have to say it was absolutely delightful. And it was such a moving experience. It felt so similar to reading a great work of literature.
MONTAGNE: As in the words would open up as prose and poetry to you?
Ms. SHEA: That's part of it. Part of it is coming across all these wonderful words that are kind of hidden in the depths of the English vocabulary that we don't come across.
MONTAGNE: For instance?
Ms. SHEA: For instance a word like peracme, P-E-R-A-C-M-E, which describes the point in your life after you've passed your prime. It's a kind of sad little word. And one of the things that's interesting, I find, about coming across these forgotten words is that when they describe something, that I then think of that thing more often.
For instance, there's a beautiful word, which is petracore, which describes that kind of warm, lonely smell that comes off of the pavement when it first rains. It's a beautiful smell. I've always loved that smell, when it first starts raining. And now, I don't talk about that word so much, but I do think about it when I come across that particular kind of gentle smell wafting off the ground.
MONTAGNE: Huh. You have, among the words you picked, miskissing?
Ms. SHEA: Yeah. That's something else that I really kind of enjoy. So many of the definitions are kind of old, and so they're, in a way, open to interpretation. And miskissing is more or less defined as kissing that is wrong. And that could be really interpreted so many different ways.
MONTAGNE: But did it - does it say…?
Ms. SHEA: I don't think they really…
MONTAGNE: It could be against the morals of the community, or could be just you hit the person on the cheek or you just weren't that good at it?
Ms. SHEA: No, in this case, they didn't specify, I believe, which of the possible varieties of improper kissing they were talking about.
MONTAGNE: There's a great, old-fashioned word that I think really should be revived: bedinner.
Ms. SHEA: Yeah, to treat somebody to dinner.
MONTAGNE: It's a verb, right?
Ms. SHEA: Yeah, yeah.
MONTAGNE: He bedinnered her.
Ms. SHEA: Yeah. I mean, I love the fact that bedinner means to treat somebody to dinner, and bemissionary means to pester or annoy somebody with missionaries.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SHEA: You know, one simple prefix is good for so many things.
MONTAGNE: And then there is a very wonderful, long word. It starts with pneumo…
Mr. SHEA: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilico volcanoconiosis.
MONTAGNE: Which is…?
Mr. SHEA: It's not a terribly exciting word. It is the longest word, I believe, in the OED. It's a kind of lung disease, which I think typically miners are afflicted with. And these great, big, imposing-looking words, they're relatively easy to define. And I was contrasting that word with, for instance, the word set, which is three little letters, but the definition is about the length of a short novel.
MONTAGNE: Now I'm jumping ahead in the dictionary, but you got to the uns, U-Ns.
Mr. SHEA: Yeah. Un was probably one of the roughest sections that I came across. It's about 450 pages of entries that begin with U-N. There is no definition. There are typically not citations. They just say this is a self-explanatory word.
However, every once in a while, inside those terribly boring sections, there would be words like unlove, which is the action of ceasing to love a person.
So every time I became tempted to just say I'll skip ahead another 100 or 200 pages and just pretend that I read all of this, I would come across one of these great words.
MONTAGNE: Now if you'd skipped ahead through all those uns, you would've hit vocabularian.
Mr. SHEA: Uh-huh, someone who pays too much attention to words.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEA: I have been accused of that.
MONTAGNE: I really splurged a few years ago, a while back, and bought the OED on a CD-ROM, and did you ever think in terms of just doing this all on the computer?
Mr. SHEA: Well you know, Oxford University Press has done a really magnificent job of putting the "Oxford English Dictionary" online. However, when I sat down at one point, and I did try to read through online, straight through, I just felt physically ill.
A large part of the appeal of this entire project was just that I love reading, the tactile sensation of turning one page to the next and feeling my fingers across them. I love having the weight of the book in my lap; I like the way that books smell. That's a huge part of it.
In fact, the first thing I do with a new book, generally, that I get, whether it's an old book or a new book, is I like to open up and take a good sniff of the pages.
These are all, to me, sensations that you can get from a book that you can't get from a computer.
MONTAGNE: What was the moment like when you finished reading that last page of the dictionary, and the last word would have been…
Mr. SHEA: Zyxt, Z-Y-X-T. It's the second-person, singular, indicative, present form of the verb to see in a kind of archaic English dialect. But when I did finally finish reading that, I had a brief feeling of euphoria. You know, I danced a little jig in the library basement, and then shortly thereafter, I realized I had to go back and read the bibliography.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Ammon Shea is the author of "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages." And if you're a bit of a vocabularian yourself, you'll find a list of some of Shea's favorite words and an excerpt from his book at NPR.org.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
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