Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Do you know what empleomania is?

I suddenly find myself with another book in my to-read pile, quite by accident. A friend of mine was about to leave and had run out of room in her backpack for the book, so I borrowed it. There were, of course, other reasons for this--the book is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea. The basic premise is that he decided one day that he was going to spend a year reading the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary. Cover to cover. And cover to cover of the next volume.

I am a huge devotee of the OED, so you can see how the acquisition of this book was a fortunate occurrence. I do not own it, and have never even looked at it, but the thing fascinates me. I read normal dictionaries just for fun, so imagine my glee on reading the OED, which contains oodles words I will never be able to use in conversation.

Simon Winchester has written a couple of books related to the OED, which I have read. The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman (I think this one has a different title across the pond, but I don't know if this is the British one or the American). The Meaning of Everything is the whole story of the dictionary's creation, with its various eccentric editors over something like sixty years. J.R.R. Tolkien has a walk on part, which has always pleased me (that's one of the things I've always loved about Tolkien--he loves words). The Professor and the Madman is the story of Dr. W.C. Minor, who made enormous contributions to the creation of the dictionary, entirely from the confines of an insane asylum. He also happens to have a connection to my own city--his half brother, T.T. Minor, was the mayor of Seattle somewhere down the line, then took a boat trip to Whidbey Island and died along the way, and had an elementary school not far from my school named after him. Sadly, the school is now being closed.

This is the kind of nonfiction that barely counts for me--most nonfiction takes me ages to get through, but this is the kind of thing I devour. You can never exhaust words, there are always more to learn, more being created, further back in history to go to find them, other countries to borrow from. Words never lose their charm. Dictionaries are a goldmine.

The OED and its creation are particularly charming. Until its creation, no dictionary had sought to catalogue the entire language--most dictionaries were collections of common words, or uncommon words, or specialist words. It had its birth somewhere in the 19th century (it's been a while since I read these books, I must admit), and was published in short fascicles until it was finally published in full in the early-middle 20th century. It had a series of very strange and rather genius editors, like Frederick Furnivall and James Murray, it had its stops and starts, books sent off to readers all over the world to be combed for new words and never returned. The Oxford English Dictionary has a personality, its definitions have style. Someday, I will own it. I have to admit that's one of my goals in life.

As for empleomania? It is the "manic compulsion to hold public office." I can't say whether Barack Obama is an empleomaniac, but it really is nice to not feel apologetic for being American any more. I'm young enough that this is the first inauguration in my memory worth being excited about.


Cornflower said...

Have you read Caught in the Web of Words by K. M. Elisabeth Murray? It's worth looking out for.

Anna said...

I have not read it, but I definitely ought to. James Murray was a large part of the fascination in Simon Winchester's books.


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