How long does it take to read every word in the dictionary?
It takes… 41 hours of continuous reading!
That’s according to Christian Saunders, founder of Canguro English, who, along with a team of trusty volunteers, took on the Herculean task of reading every single word in the Oxford Dictionary of English on livestream this World Teachers’ Day to raise money for the education of refugees in Europe.
We spoke to Christian about the highs (and the lows) of reading the entire dictionary:
How long, and how many people, did it take to read the Oxford Dictionary of English?
We started reading at 10am on Thursday 5th October, and we finished at 3am the following Saturday. That’s 41 hours of continuous reading! More than 30 (clearly insane) people read during that time.
Was this longer or shorter than your initial expectations?
Before we started I asked various people to read random pages from the dictionary and they all pretty much read at a similar pace: one minute per page. There are 2000 pages so I calculated it would take 33 hours. But that didn’t account for people reading slower than expected, or the time it took to change readers. So, it turns out that English teachers are not the best people to ask to estimate anything!
What was your highlight of the experience?
Reading the final word: ‘Zyrian’ (a language from north-western Russia)! I think it’s really interesting, but everyone involved said that they actually enjoyed reading their pages. Once you start reading it’s like a kind of meditation and I think it activates something deep in our brains. I had such crazy dreams the night we finished.
To borrow from Nietzsche: ‘If you gaze long into a dictionary, the dictionary also gazes into you.’
What was your favourite word?
My favourite entry was definitely ‘Slender Loris’. I was trying to visualise the conversation in my mind between the people who named it:
‘This Loris is kinda thin no? Let’s call it a Thin Loris.’
‘Ummm, that doesn’t sound very scientific?’
‘What about Skinny Loris?’
Did you have any fun engagements with supporters?
We had such incredible support during the live stream. There were people actually following the reading by typing the words as we read them. And they did that for hours. I think that actually took more stamina than simply reading! A lot of people commented with only one word: ‘why?’
What was the hardest part about the challenge?
I think that the lack of sleep was the hardest part. And after a while it actually physically hurt to read. The inside of my cheeks were red raw from the friction of my teeth rubbing on them, and my tongue was swollen. I expected to lose my voice, but that didn’t happen. My wife was pretty disappointed about that.
What was your least favourite part of the dictionary to read?
The hardest part was definitely all of the entries beginning with ‘un-’. It was like reading the whole dictionary again but with ‘un-’ in front of every word. And the repetition of that sound at the beginning made it pure torture.
Can you guys not just put ‘Un-:’ can be used in front of all the words in the dictionary to make them negative as an entry?!
What surprised you when reading the entries?
I think what surprised me the most is the amount of foreign words that we have adopted without any type of anglicization, especially French words. I have a chart in my office that shows that 21% of modern English comes from Old French, but it’s only when you start to read the words without any context that you realise just how plunderous English has been of other languages. I constantly had to switch to my best French accent, which I learnt from Mr Potato from Peppa Pig. As far as I know he is considered the standard for French pronunciation.
What have you learnt from the experience?
I learnt a lot of things. But the most surprising is that it is actually really fun to read the dictionary in that way! There was not a single person reading who didn’t stop once in a while to marvel at a word and take the time to read its definition and absorb it. I also learnt that you sound a bit like Eminem when you read really fast.
Any tips for budding, young dictionary readers who want to follow suit?! (Or English learners in general?)
I teach English as a foreign language, so a lot of my time is spent teaching people new vocabulary. Before this experience I only viewed the dictionary as a reference tool, but now I think that people can benefit from simply sitting down and reading a few pages at a time, finding words that they find attractive, and using them. There is no best way to learn vocabulary, so I think this could be a great complementary way to learn.
Why did you decide to read the entire dictionary?
I have been teaching English on YouTube for more than two years, and during that time I have met amazing students from all over the world. And they all have one thing in common: a lust for knowledge. I have seen how education can change lives and create opportunities. I wanted to do something to try and give a future to those refugees who have arrived in Europe with nothing.
What are your plans/ambitions/hopes following on from this challenge?
I am going to continue to raise money for the education of refugees. I am hoping to create an alliance with other English teachers, education companies, and individuals who want to help out. Get in touch with me if you want to participate!
And if I have to read the dictionary again I will gladly do it. I am actually looking forward to it!
Christian Saunders was born in Australia, and has been living and working in Spain since 2010. He teaches English as a foreign language on his YouTube channel, Canguro English, where he shares videos about all aspects of the English language. He also hosts a Facebook group for students to express themselves in English.
This year, to celebrate World Teachers’ Day, Christian decided to raise money for the education of refugees here in Europe by reading the Oxford Dictionary of English, live online, with the help of people from the local community and online English teachers from all over the world.