On reading the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: the letters T through Z
As the final instalment of an occasional series, guest blogger Nikki Love (Exit Sideways) talks us through her project to read every word in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (A.K.A “The Behemoth”) in under a year.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in March when I close the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for the last time and I feel lighter. About 4.6 pounds lighter to be somewhat precise. The sounds and warmth of spring seep into my home and I feel like an empty nester who has sent their only child off into the wild blue yonder.
Except, of course, that my child is The Behemoth and it now sits just a few feet away on an overflowing bookcase in my living room along with all the other books I have read.
With just 11 days left in the challenge I read the last entry on the last page and that was it. It was all over. I had finally, after so much time, claimed somewhat of a pyrrhic victory – having gained a great deal of knowledge at the expense of so much of my incredibly precious time.
A lesson learned the hard way
I have a conflicted pride about successfully completing this challenge. All along I struggled with the rationality of what I was doing as I spent hours hunched over a tome filled with bite-sized nuggets of information – most of which I wouldn’t remember – and yet I obstinately continued as an entire year of my life passed. As only the stubborn can truly know, this is how we learn – the hard way. While I inherently know and have known that time is precious, it wasn’t until I spent this year using so much of it to read a dictionary – possible the most tedious book in existence – that I truly understood just how valuable time really is.
And yet, I wouldn’t take it back even if I could.
I don’t regret reading the dictionary. I regret committing to reading it in under a year. I fully recommend spending time with the dictionary, but not at the expense of living your life – which is what I did. Read it leisurely, not competitively. Unless you’re stubborn like me. Then this is just another lesson you’ll have to learn your own way.
That is to say… damn the torpedoes.
Damn the torpedoes
The longer this challenge went on the more I would relate words to the challenge itself. Damn the torpedoes means “let us proceed aggressively without fear of the dangers or concern for the consequences” which seems quite applicable to how I carried myself through this challenge. Giving up hours and hours of your limited life? Damn the torpedoes! I’m doing it anyways.
Similarly, the word telos means “an ultimate object or aim” and is Latin for “end”. My ultimate aim? To read this giant sucker in under a year. Tribulation means “great trouble or suffering” and I think subjecting myself to this challenge surely brought on great suffering to my social life and my physique among a few other things. For awhile I had even convinced myself that the dictionary ruined my eyesight from having spent countless days with red-rimmed eyes straining to see the tiny print. It didn’t. I still have 20/20 vision.
When I hit the W section and got to will, being defined in the fourth sense as “energy of intention”, I was ridiculously self-impressed. “Oh yeah. That’s so badass. That’s me all right. I mean not just anyone has what it takes to read the dictionary,” I had thought to myself all smug and self-righteous. Of course, anyone can read the dictionary. They just choose not to. Probably because they’re busy living, but, you know, to each their own.
Velleity garnered a similarly pompous response from me. It is defined as “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action”. Again, I smugly thought: “Not me. If I want something, I do it. I mean, look at me, I’m reading the dictionary. And it’s incredibly boring. Oh yeah. I’ve got drive.” Mm hmm. I’m truly not this self-absorbed and cocksure. I swear.
When I read weary, defined as “no longer interested in or enthusiastic about” I had exhaustedly nodded my head wishing I didn’t have to spend one more moment with The Behemoth. Really, the entire experience was such a roller-coaster. I have felt so many things about this challenge and the dictionary: love, hate, skepticism, confidence, exuberance, regret, anger, contempt, and nearly every emotion in between.
Now, of course, not all the words that resonated with me were about the challenge itself.
The final contribution to my newfound verbosity
First up is traps meaning “personal belongings; baggage” and I like it because sometimes your possessions can kind of feel like a trap because you get so connected to them. Another that I liked was thunder mug for “chamber pot” because it makes going to the bathroom sound like an incredibly powerful experience, almost divinely powerful like the heavens opening up and Zeus launching lightning bolts every time you release the contents of your bladder. On a related note, some bars serve what they call the thunder mug (an oversized mug of beer) and it makes me giggle because they’re unknowingly relating their beer to, well, you know.
A troglodyte is, in the second sense, “a person regarded as living in wilful ignorance, especially of current trends and subjects; a conservative or old-fashioned person” which is clearly related to the first sense “a cave dweller, especially of prehistoric times.” It sounds just troll-under-the-bridge-like enough that it brings the right kind of image to mind for someone who is wilfully ignorant but it has a cute kind of ring to it so that it doesn’t come across as crushingly mean. Well, to me anyways.
The term vapour lock in its second sense is “a sudden inability to perform to one’s usual standards” and I fully intend to use this rather than expressions like “I’m in a rut” or “I have writer’s block.” Although it’s not a direct synonym for these expressions, I think there’s definitely a link. My nine-to-five demands creativity and sometimes I’m all tapped out of it. This is incredibly frustrating for me since, as I’m sure you’re beginning to understand, I suffer from a few Type A tendencies. But at least now when I’m creatively incapacitated I have an interesting way to state it.
When I read vacuity something about it struck a chord with me. Perhaps the definition “absolute emptiness” seemed slightly poetic. Or maybe it was how it caused me to fall down a rabbit hole pondering exactly what the difference between absolute emptiness and just plain old emptiness is. It seems logical to assume that if something isn’t absolutely empty then it’s not actually empty. I might be an optimist after all. Or I may be thinking about this way too hard.
If you disagree, perhaps you’re more likely to identify with the entry for Weltschmerz, “a feeling of pessimism; an apathetic or vaguely yearning outlook on life” which comes from two German words, one meaning world and the other meaning pain. World pain. It seems timely.
Now, let’s talk about some fun words. Like Xanadu which is “used to convey an impression of a place as almost unattainably luxurious or beautiful” or tiffin which is cute little word for “a light meal eaten especially at midday; lunch” or trip the light fantastic as another way to say “dance.” Right near the end of this colossal book I discovered a word that is ranked fairly high on my favourite list. That word is zephyr and it’s a word for “a mild, gentle wind or breeze”. I would also maybe consider naming my child this. I mean, if there are kids named Summer and Winter and River and Brook and Sky and Rain – I think Zephyr would fit right in. Right?
The year that I lost and the words that I gained
In the end, I was able to choose from over 300,000 words, senses, and definitions and I narrowed my favourite words down to a list of just two.
Bedazzle – confuse by excess of brilliance
Elegiac – having a pleasing quality of gentle and wistful mournfulness
An expanded list can be found on my blog. Reading the dictionary cover to cover for this challenge was the approximate equivalent of 26 John Grisham novels in 51 weeks. This comparison, however, doesn’t seem fair. I once read a book a week for a year and reading the dictionary in the same time span was monumentally more difficult.
I have expanded my vocabulary, although not by excessive leaps and bounds; I have re-learned words that I have been using wrong my entire life; I have discovered inventions I didn’t know about; I have added destinations to my travel list; I have learned about people I never knew; I have been discouraged by the malice prevalent throughout history; I have seen the over-arching misogyny present in so much of our language. I have done all of this by reading the dictionary, but the greatest thing The Behemoth taught me wasn’t between its covers.
I gave up so much of my time and I will never get it back. I can’t regret this challenge because I needed to do it to really understand the value of time. You can squeeze moments in, rearrange chores, and be more efficient when something is important enough to cram into your already packed life – if you’re committed to it. That being said, none of us will ever have as much time as we want – not in a day, not in a lifetime – so when it comes to how you spend yours, make sure you spend it in a way that is important to you.
I know I will.