Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
The First English Dictionary, 1604
There have never been so many words, and we’ve never been so obsessed with them.
An entire literary genre comprises nothing more than compilations of words, in order—which generally means alphabetical order—with or without commentary and exegesis. These are wordbooks, including but not limited to dictionaries. English now has tens of thousands of wordbooks, with hundreds more arriving each year. They may or may not concern themselves with what words mean or how to spell them. Over the next few months, the shelves will need to find room for dictionaries of plants and flavors, politics and numismatics, zoology and psychopathology; wordbooks for consultation, exam study, and game playing; collections of euphemisms, profanity, slang, and cant; a dictionary of terrorism and a dictionary of drinking water; joining a big crowd of “Words You Should Know,” “Words Smart People Should Know,” and “Words You Should Know to Sound Smart.”
How did wordbooks get so popular? W.H. Auden once said his desert-island book would be a dictionary, “for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways”—but we might put this under irony. Wordbooks are hardly meant for reading. A perennial best-seller in this category takes as its entire purpose the drawing of a line between words and nonwords: The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Others—such as the less popular but more authoritative Oxford English Dictionary—have come to accept the reality that no such line can ever be drawn. Growth in the language is breaking all bounds. The OED, having noticed, can no longer confine itself to the printed page.
The birth of the genre in English can be dated exactly. It came in the age of Shakespeare, in 1604, when Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and defrocked priest, published a short book with a long title that began A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes…. Cawdrey’s dictionary (a word he apparently didn’t know) runs to 2,500 words. His definitions are terse, and they don’t drip with confidence or erudition. Some words he drops into blind categories:
abricot, kind of fruit.
alablaster, kind of stone.
citron, kind of fruit.
crocodile, kind of beast.
Others he struggles to explain:
gargarise, to wash the mouth, and throate within, by stirring some liquor up and downe in the mouth.
horizon, a circle, deviding the halfe of the firmament, from the other halfe which we see not.
ironie, a mocking speech.
If he doesn’t know something, he has nowhere to look it up. He does have the honor of inventing the perfectly useless circular definition:
gentile, a heathen.
heathen, see Gentile.
For spelling he cares not at all—because there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to spell a word. He does announce, “Heerby also the true Orthography,” but consistent orthography doesn’t exist. In his very title, Cawdrey indiscriminately writes “words” and “wordes.” No one knows how many copies of this little book left the printer. Only one survived; it is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Last year it was republished for the first time (apparently there is a market for dictionaries), with a thoughtful and witty introduction by John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
If Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall sits at one pole of our wordbook history, the OED owns the other, but the OED isn’t standing still. The monument is on the move. Gargarise (“a gargle”) is Obs., says the OED, but an onslaught of new words strains the lexicographers’ ability to keep up. As a book, the OED last appeared as the Second Edition, a twenty-volume set published from 1972 to 1986; since then the franchise has naturally gone online, where it knows no limits. In the horde of new words this year we find waxhead, slang, chiefly Austral.—see surfie ; snickerdoodle, a century-old cookie achieving belated recognition; gengineer, sci-fi lingo for when you don’t have time to say “genetic engineer”; wantaway, just what it sounds like—“a person who wishes to leave”; and splitsville, defined with the OED ‘s dainty exactitude as “a notional place in which couples are separated or divorced.” I like that “notional place.”
Some others: radioland (as in “Hello out there in—“), fat city (not yet recognized by the OED), and hall of shame (as in, quoting Publishers Weekly, 2004, the “Blueberry Muffin Hall of Shame”). Cawdrey knew the word notion, “inwarde knowledge, or understanding.” Our world is so much bigger, the landscape so much more crowded. “In such busie, and active times,” wrote Thomas Sprat, thrilling to the buzz of the mid-1600s, “there arise more new thoughts of men, which must be signifi’d, and varied by new expressions.” At the time perhaps six million people in the world spoke English, most of them illiterate, isolated, dying within a few miles of where they were born.
Now there are more than a billion English-speakers, many engaged in a ceaseless global conversation. No one can count the dialects, sociolects, and idiolects. The first lexicographers had the first printed books to draw from, along with the evidence of their ears; now wordhunters swim in a teeming ocean of information: newspapers and magazines, movie scripts and television talk, the babel of online chatrooms and newsgroups. Neologisms arise spontaneously and crawl onto the land. The OED as a matter of policy waits for five years of evidence before recognizing a new word but then raises no barriers of taste, propriety, or correctness. Now puh-leeze is an OED word. It does, after all, mean something distinctly different from please.
In his latest message to readers, delivered, of course, electronically, John Simpson said with pride: “The OED should have an up-to-date entry for word. And now it does.” The entry dates back to Old English, runs the length of a novel, with ninety-seven distinct senses and subsenses, and includes
Computing. A consecutive string of bits (now typically 16, 32, or 64, but formerly fewer) that can be transferred and stored as a unit.
as well as
int. slang (orig. US, in the language of rap and hip-hop). Also word up. Expressing affirmation, agreement, or admiration: “That’s the truth!” “There’s no denying it!” “For sure!”
I’ve already stated the obvious, that dictionaries aren’t meant to be read. But that is what Ammon Shea set out to do with the OED. He says he read it in order, all twenty volumes, 21,730 pages, beginning with A and ending with Z. One sees this immediately as a stunt. Shea, who describes himself as a former street musician, gondolier, and furniture mover, aspires to be the David Blaine of wordland. He embarks on a feat of endurance evidently pointless and perhaps a bit mad. It takes a toll on his physical being: in the course of his narrative he reports headaches, neck pain, deteriorating eyesight, and episodes of nausea. (“Oh, come on,” you’re thinking, “it’s only a dictionary.” Yes, but it’s a monster, 138 pounds, 615,000 word forms illustrated by 2.4 million quotations. He is reading the Second Edition and barely mentions the online juggernaut, which will soon have doubled in size.) So why does he do it? There’s the inevitable Mount Everest chestnut, “Because it’s there.” He has a thousand-volume dictionary collection and a former lexicographer girlfriend. Anyway, he loves the words.
Shea reads “eight or ten hours each day,” writing down words he finds especially lovely and strange. Sometimes he has opinions about particular letters: “I find B wildly entertaining.” “The letter I tastes like it is full of capers, and I hate capers.” ” Q is a boring letter.” Also he starts to notice how many words denote “a stupid person” and how many more “a woman of dubious moral fiber.” (It’s true—even Cawdrey has quite a few of these: baud, “whore”; concubine, “harlot, or light huswife.” One can’t help but think of the cliché about Eskimos having an abundance of words for snow.) Mainly, though, Shea’s book is a compilation of words: special excerpts from the OED, with commentary. He rephrases the definitions, and he tends to favor the truly rare and obsolete—words that the language has shed like flakes of dead skin—but many are beauties nonetheless:
constult, to act stupidly together.
latibulate, to hide oneself in a corner.
yepsen, the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.
It is in this respect a backward-looking adventure. As the journey wears on, Shea says he feels “the entire range of emotions that a great book will call forth from its reader.” I think we may take this with a grain of salt. He claims:
All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized.
Here we finally reach the olifaunt in the room. They don’t “just happen” to be alphabetized. We take alphabetical order for granted—in the modern world it is ubiquitous and second nature—so we forget how counterintuitive it first seemed. It is an ordering scheme divorced from sense, narrative, chronology, and anything else to do with meaning. As a new invention, it was a game-changer (not yet in the OED), critical for the organization and promulgation of knowledge, enabling humans to store and retrieve bits of information with unprecedented efficiency—that is, to behave as computers avant la lettre. Cawdrey, in 1604, had to explain it step by step—algorithmically—in a special note to the reader:
Thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand…. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.
This was unnatural, mechanical, and arbitrary. All alphabetical order had going for it was that it worked. And now, four centuries later, it may be on the way out. We can type our words into the search box and let computers do the dirty work.
“If Shakespeare had been able to Google…,” writes Roy Blount Jr., “oh, never mind.” Blount is usually described as a humorist, which is a long way from a lexicographer. He treats the verb to Google with due seriousness (as does the OED, since 2006), but he cannot help digressing to googol (a very large number), goggle, googly-eyed, googly (a cricket term), and glug, because he cares profoundly about the sounds of words. His twenty previous books have been loping reportage and rambling memoirs and occasional doggerel, treating sports, dogs and cats, and above all the culture of the American South, but his latest, Alphabet Juice, may be his best and most heartfelt. Which is odd, because it’s in alphabetical order. Nonetheless it is most suitable for reading, not for reference. Your chances of looking up any particular word are slim to nil.