Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: Part 2, We Are Dealing With Nabokov Here

After my criticisms in Part 1 of this post, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I found Reading the OED a complete waste of time. Not quite: though I’d never recommend the book, I did come to realize something important about wordplay, specifically Shakespeare’s wordplay, in the course of reading it.

Shakespeare’s relation to the OED is a subject unto itself, one of the many Shea doesn’t take up because he’s more interested in making tepid jokes than in imparting information. In fact he mentions Shakespeare only twice, and only in glancing allusions, not even to quote him.

That’s a missed opportunity because one of the things we all think we know about Shakespeare is that he had the largest vocabulary of any writer in English and that he coined more words—as many as 1700—than any other writer. These claims may or may not be true, but the reason we repeat them is that the earliest quote for these words in the OED is from Shakespeare. That doesn’t mean he coined them. The volunteers who sent quotations to the OED‘s editors may not have happened on earlier written examples, or all such examples may have been lost. Or Shakespeare’s is the earliest surviving written use of a word, but it was common in the spoken language. Or, having found the word in Shakespeare, the volunteers thought their work was done. With Shakespeare’s works more easily available than most others and his reputation flying high, there was a certain editorial bias at work as well. So the extent of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is a more controversial question than you might think, but that’s not one of the facts about the OED you will learn by reading Shea’s book.

What’s not controversial is Shakespeare’s unique exuberance in his use of language. I can’t think of any writer in English who’s even in the same league except for Joyce. In My Year with Shakespeare I put it by saying that he was drunk on language. What else can explain why he makes the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet a sonnet, opens the play proper with two characters trading dirty puns in stichomythia (two characters speaking in alternate lines, a technique invented by the Greek dramatists), then tops himself by having Romeo and Juliet’s first dialogue together constitute a sonnet—delivered in stichomythia?

Drunk on language. Couldn’t Shea make the same claim, quite apart from his apparent fixation on words relating to inebriation, vomiting, and pissing? You’d have to be pretty damn drunk to read, or claim to read, 59 million words. Shea can make a claim Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have made, or wanted to: that he’s read every word in the English language.

But to what end? Shea reminds me, as so many things do, of one of the two most profound sketches Monty Python ever did. No, not the crowd in Life of Brian shouting “Yes! We’re all individuals!” The other one:

Now it’s time for Great Actors, introduced as usual by Alan



Alan Semen: Sir Edwin, which has been for you the most demanding of

the great Shakespearean tragic heroes that you’ve played?


Sir Edwin: Well, of course this is always a difficult one, but

I think the answer must be Hamlet.


Alan Semen: Which you played at Stratford in 1963.


Sir Edwin: That’s right, yes, I found the role a very taxing one. I

mean, er, Hamlet has eight thousand two hundred and sixty-two words, you see.


. . .


Alan Semen: How many words did you have to say as King Lear at the

Aldwych in ’52?


Sir Edwin: Ah, well, I don’t want you to get the impression it’s just a

question of the number of words… um… I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important. Old Peter Hall used to say to me, “They’re all there, Eddie. Now we’ve got to get them in the right order.”


Getting them in the right order. Is it too much to suggest that’s what writing is all about?

It’s so much easier with a dictionary, where the unit of engagement is the individual word and the only right order is the simplest. I owe it to Shea for bringing the crucial distinction home to me. I’m sure Shea loves words. But he loves the shiny ones, the words with unusual sounds, shapes, or significance. (To his credit, Shea expressly denies that he loves shiny words because using them makes you look smarter than other people. He acknowledges that you’re more likely to sound like a twerp when you use obscure words, though he often forgets that when he sees an opening for one of his weak jokes.) For Shea, words are baubles, the pretty polysyllables you hold in your hand and admire and put back in the cabinet and only use in crossword puzzles and Scrabble. Words are like (and here I speak as a fountain pen user) the incredibly expensive limited edition Montblanc you never write with, just keep it in your display case.

Real lovers of language and real writers, by contrast, love all words, the dirty, the shopworn, even unto the ugliest. Joyce knew that the only possible word with which he could have ended Ulysses was the humble “Yes.” He did not have Molly Bloom say “gobemouche I said gobemouche I will Gobemouche.”

Let me be clear that I wasn’t disparaging crossword puzzles or Scrabble or other word games just now—still less people who like them. It was Lewis Carroll who invented word ladders, or “doublets” as he called them (“change HEAD to TAIL in 5 steps”), after all. But that isn’t why we celebrate him as one of the greatest English writers. Word puzzles are, for the most part, one-dimensional uses of language; they fundamentally don’t use any aspect of words but the letters they are made of. Except in the clues, they don’t use the meanings of words in any interesting or unexpected way. If you did nothing but crossword puzzles, you’d be missing out on most of the remarkable things human beings can do with language. Metaphor, allusion, irony, even alliteration—all typically depend on more than the morphological, phonemic, or even semantic characteristics of words as single units. That’s the problem with the whole idea of reading a dictionary straight through. All you get is one damn word after another with no sense of how they relate to each other except alphabetically. Shea looks at words as single units, and just as there’s very little you can do with a raspberry other than express contempt or punctuate, there’s very little you can do, apart from exclamations, with single words.

Great writers other than Lewis Carroll have made extensive use of word games. There’s Georges Perec, who among other things accomplished the unbelievable feat of writing a novel, in French, without using the letter “e” (still more amazing is its English translation, which also doesn’t use “e”), and his mentor Raymond Queneau, the founder of the Oulipo group. And there’s Vladimir Nabokov. His short story “The Vane Sisters” is probably his most famous, not so much for its intrinsic merits but because the last paragraph is an acrostic: take the first letters of each word in that paragraph and they spell out a message that reveals the secret of the story. Sure, that’s an incredibly clever trick, which Nabokov himself said could only even be tried once in a thousand years (the man was not given to false modesty). But you know what? Nobody got it. The fiction editor of the New Yorker, Katherine White, rejected the story, and in a famous, snippy letter Nabokov had to explain the trick. I’m not nearly as impressed by this feat as Nabokov wants me to be, because I regard it as a conjuring trick, a exercise in cleverness for its own sake—just what Shea’s book would be, if only he were clever. It’s in his novels, above all Lolita and Pale Fire, that Nabokov weds his extraordinary linguistic facility to a capacity for empathy to create characters who appear as complex as real human beings. Though he engendered an entry in the OED Shea does not mention (“nymphet: 2. A sexually attractive or sexually mature young girl”), this is where Nabokov proves he can play with Shakespeare on the field where wordplay meets human truth.

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