Shea arrives at another bad patch partway through Chapter U, with the “un-” section — more than 400 pages of words of self-evident meaning. “I am near catatonic,” he writes, “bored out of my mind.” But he doesn’t skip; he is lashed to the tiller, unthimbled and unthrashed.
Théophile Gautier read the dictionary to enrich and exoticize his poetry. Walter Pater read the dictionary to keep his prose pure and marmoreal — to learn what words to avoid. Shea has no interest in purity or poetry. His style is simple. He just wants to identify and savor, for their own sweet sakes, malocclusive Greek and Latin hybrids that are difficult to figure out how to pronounce. He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words. And a number of Shea’s finds deserve prompt resurrection: vicambulist, for instance — a person who wanders city streets.
The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The O.E.D., Shea notes, is “a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.” Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own.
Saturday, August 02, 2008
= 1 Grisham/day
In the NYTBR, Nicholson Baker reviews Ammon Shea's Reading the OED. It is a delightful little piece: