Are there any dictionary readers in this crowd?

I have been “reading” dictionaries for years, most consciously and proactively since the late 90s, but became fascinated by etymology and began using dictionaries as a learning tool for that study as far back as high school (late 80s). But I have yet to READ a dictionary, you know, like one might read a novel: front to back.

The notion is not unfamiliar to me; an old friend who was originally my first “cool” piano teacher (taught me theory and how to play Steely Dan songs instead of reading classical music exclusively) claims to have read the OED more than once. That is a claim I would dismiss out of hand coming from most people, but this gentleman is both intelligent and insane enough to have done it, and it fits his obsessive approach to learning in general.

The OED has long been my gold standard, but I also consult American dictionaries (the onboard New Oxford American English Dictionary on my Mac is seductively searchable and I have come to love having it at my fingertips, not to mention the front and back matter) and spend a lot of time on as well. I dream of having a shelf filled with various dictionaries from various times and for various languages (and locations for English). The online versions of the 1828 and 1913 editions of Noah Webster’s dictionary are particularly useful for tracking the changes in meaning, form, and use of words in American English.

I don’t know if my mother just named me well (Word is - literally - my middle name) or if this onomastic event itself gave rise to my love for words, but I am one of those people who can get lost surfing the OED. I live for those infrequent occasions when I can gather with a group of like-minded friends around the two volumes of the compact OED where people start throwing out unfamiliar words (“withershins” was a recent favorite) and learning how to use them in a sentence, or playing an informal etymological version of the game “dictionary” to see who can suss out the origin of a word knowing only its meaning and spelling.

Do you have a favorite dictionary? Do you have a reading practice with dictionaries? Have you ever considered reading one cover to cover? Do you still use hard copy dictionaries even with the profusion of dictionaries online?

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Ha! yes they are fun to read, and I did that for some number of pages as a kid, but never a whole dictionary. It’s all about the etymologies. My OED was the condensed version you needed a magnifying glass to read, and I no longer have it. An entry a day in digital form would be delightful. Such a service probably exists! Add in some lore about Frederick Furnivall and the Ladies Sculling Society; I might pay for that.

Other than the OED, anything marginal, odd, and old is eminently readable. And of course, Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. A dictionary full of fake and marginal words, maybe closer to a slang dictionary would be fascinating. I always thought “old” and “middle” English dictionaries would be fun to have oriented to each other — one written from the standpoint of Normanized English trying to education the hicks in the old Danelaw, and vice versa. Or, a rapper’s dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, each entry explained in modern hip hop Englishes with samples from notorious bards’ flyting.

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Great question! I don’t really have a dictionary reading practice in a normal sense, but I love words and language and translation so gonna throw out a few links and thoughts!

One thing I posted a while back, a favorite website for learning about all kinds of strange and rare words: The Phrontistery - the ultimate website for weird words

And a really cool book I picked up recently: Imagining Language - An Anthology

I also dug through my antilibrary a bit and found a bunch of great dictionaries that have a specific focus or function (including a couple that aren’t really dictionaries at all, but seemed interesting!)—

Also a couple books about dictionaries; the first in particular looks amazing—

All that to say, no, I have not ever read a complete dictionary cover to cover, though it sounds like it would be a pretty fascinating learning project / experience!

And yes at one point I installed an older version of Websters (looks like 1913) as my internal Mac dictionary, after reading this excellent post by James Somers: You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

Ha, sounds like my kind of party game! I know a version of this via Zoom / online dictionary site just would not be the same…but could be worth a try nonetheless :smiley: Maybe with either The Phrontistery, or another favorite reference, Wordnik, which has a nice “random word” feature…

Ah yeah totally! Slang dictionaries are super fun, particularly when specific to a region, profession, area of history, or whatever. Along similar lines one I have that came to mind, mainly for the fun title: Poplollies & Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words

(This edition comes w/ “Tenderfeet and Ladyfingers: A Compendium of Body Language”…my copy does not but that seems fascinating too!)

I first had the two volume edition of the Compact OED, in a case with the drawer and the magnifying glass, but that eventually mildewed so I gave it to my summer camp alma mater out in the woods where a little more mildew won’t hurt anything… The one I have now is the same content, I believe, but has nine of the original pages on one page instead of the four that the two volume version has.

The OED is now a subscription access dictionary online and doesn’t appear to be available in print (The Oxford Dictionary of English is, but looks like it’s about 250,000 words shy of the OED). They also have app versions of the “Concise” (abridged) series. This last bit is new to me - I might have to spring for one of them!

Thanks for introducing me to Frederick Furnivall and the Ladies Sculling Society, @dpk! I don’t remember encountering him before, but there’s some fascinating history there.

I like the way you think! I just learned recently about legal doublets (aid and abet, cease and desist), which is something of an example of “educating the hicks in the old Danelaw,” at least in a legal setting.

A rapper’s dictionary of Anglo-Saxon is blowing my mind… It makes me want to come up with a similar project for the delightfully autological French argot verlan

@Brendan, I keep meaning to revisit The Phrontistery after seeing your mention of it when I first got on the site. I remember poring over that site when I first found it. There was a great website around a decade ago called which allowed people to adopt words that had fallen out of common use (I think I adopted “aberuncate” and “evenient”), but I think that site is long since gone.

Imagining Language - An Anthology looks truly fantastic! I haven’t had a chance yet to take a close look at the pages you posted, but I look forward to doing so.

And what a great list of dictionaries you have! Dictionary of Gestures I would love to have in my library (I have learned a little about gestures in the context of trauma resolution, but know little of it culturally around the world). A Dictionary of Miracles is also enticing, as are A Historical and Etymological Dictionary of ASL and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. And both the books you list about dictionaries are now on my wish list!

Thanks for the James Somers post - I had no idea such a hack was possible! I have been wanting to get behind the user interface of the digital world, so maybe I will try my hand at this hack.

There is something particularly nice about physical dictionaries, of course, but I can imagine a Zoom/online dictionary round being worthwhile! The game has been more of a pastime than a game per se, just a handful of people with their noses in the OED, looking for words that no one knows, collectively striving to uncover the etymology… but it could actually be conducted like a proper game of Dictionary, but with etymologies instead of (or in addition to) definitions.

Finally, I imagine y’all are familiar with Kevin Stroud’s The History of English Podcast, but in case you aren’t, if you’re on this thread you would probably enjoy it. Stroud is remarkably thorough and a great storyteller.

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Just reminded me, Wordnik now has something very similar! I think you can adopt any word that someone else hasn’t adopted already:

Thanks! Yeah I think Dictionary of Gestures is the only one in the list I actually own. But lots of the others are very up my alley. And Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography looks realllly good.

Haven’t yet listened to that History of English podcast but thanks for the link, sounds great!

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