COVER TO COVER
Benjamin Friedman has read the dictionary from cover to cover. It took him a decade—he detoured for a bit in order to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton—but otherwise he kept the volume by his bedside and would read a few pages each night before sleep. He says, “I started at a and ended at zymosan,” the latter a word that didn’t interest him at all—it’s technical (“an insoluble largely polysaccharide fraction of yeast cell walls,” first recorded in 1943) and not one he thinks he’d ever use.
Friedman admits that before his dictionary reading he was one of those readers who tend not to stop when they come to a word they don’t know. That changed by chance when he saw some writing—which had all these words he didn’t know—by a college friend’s father, who was chair of the English department of Purdue University. Friedman suddenly realized he enjoyed looking them up. “They were mostly lit-crit-type words,” he says. “I reached a point when I started to look forward to the times I didn’t know a word, and then the process of looking it up and getting to learn it. So I thought, why not go straight to the source, and that was how it all came about.”
Words, old and young
There’s another New Yorker—a former furniture mover—who spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words), so Friedman’s achievement isn’t a record by any means. Nor is his dictionary of choice the OED; it’s the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, and not any edition at that—specifically the Ninth. “The Ninth is the best edition, better than the Eighth, Tenth and the current Eleventh,” says Friedman, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a manager at a bookstore, the renowned but now struggling St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan. (The original Webster’s dictionary, named after the lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English-language-spelling reformer, political writer, editor and prolific author, known as the father of American scholarship and education, Noah Webster [1758–1843], later became Merriam-Webster, Inc., with the publication of the Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, in 1983.) “I own some of the later editions because they have more up-to-date information—not that you need it now, with computers,” says Friedman. “But the Ninth was the first to give the year of the earliest known record of the use of a word, which you don’t find in the earlier editions.” Friedman is fascinated by words’ age as well as their meanings, and immediately rattles off some surprises—the surprise with the first list below being how old they are, and with the second, how new.
John Doe (1768)
Cyrillic (1813)—”How did they talk about these languages before this?”
question mark (1869)
tooth fairy (1962) “I asked my mom, ‘You mean there was no tooth fairy until you were in your twenties?'” Her answer was unsatisfactory and didn’t resolve the mystery, Friedman says.
Growing up, Friedman had Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. “It came in three volumes, so it was a little unwieldy,” he says. Dictionaries have always played an important role in his life. The actual copy of the Ninth that he read cover to cover was a present he received after graduating from Reed College in Portland, Oregon; that sealed what he calls “my loyalty to it,” despite the fact that, as he readily admits, the Ninth New Collegiate isn’t as complete as the OED, which gives the actual first citation. “Webster’s just gives the bare year, but that’s interesting enough,” he says. But it’s clear the the whole act of information-gathering grips him. “The Ninth was the last edition where in their various appendices they had a little table of North American colleges and universities giving the town they’re located in and the year they were founded. I find this kind of information very interesting.” Asked why this could possibly be “very interesting,” Friedman says simply, “I like knowing those kind of facts,” and immediately gives an example. “Did you know that Harvard was founded in 1636? That’s pretty old for the New World. Harvard invited Galileo to come and speak. He turned it down only because he was elderly and didn’t think he was up to the transatlantic voyage.” (However, that titbit about Galileo isn’t to be found in Friedman’s dictionary, he admits.)
“Every time I finished a letter, it was so exciting,” says Friedman of his 10 years with the lexicon. “I was working on S for six months!” As time went on, his methodology changed. “The strategy I used for writing things up didn’t really crystallize until the letter G. To begin with, all I was really doing was writing down the words I didn’t know that I thought I’d like to remember, but after a little while I realized there were a couple of sorts of things that were interesting and worth recording—chiefly, as I mentioned, the year the words were first used and also the etymologies, which were sometimes fascinating. After that, I had a list just for the words and their definitions, along with one for how old or young they were, all on loose sheets of paper.”
From botryoidal to oologist
The poet W.H. Auden famously said if he were marooned on a desert island, he would choose to have with him a good dictionary rather than “the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.” Friedman says that he read somewhere that after Auden died, his copy of the OED was found “clawed to pieces.” Considering it’s been handled so often, Friedman’s own dictionary is in pretty good shape—the spine is intact, although the bookboard has come away. He is a careful reader in several respects. As he worked his way through the dictionary, he wrote down every word he thought he would want to remember, with a succinct definition of each. His notes are, unsurprisingly, in alphabetical order. “I was 22 when I started, so some of the words I wrote down then, such as abattoir, are very familiar to me now. And then there are the ones I now look at fondly—glabella [“the hairless space between the eyebrows” (1823)]—and then there are ones I can’t remember at all [inevitably, Friedman had to look one of those up—he produced ochlocracy, which means ‘government by mob rule’ (1584)]. Maybe I’ve retained about 25 percent of all the words I wrote down. I have a pretty good vocabulary,” he continues, “but how much of it can be attributed to the dictionary reading is hard to say.”
Of course, he has his preferences. “My all-time favorite,” he says, “is botryoidal—what’s great about it is the unlikelihood that you’ll ever have to use it.” (It means shaped like a bunch of grapes [first known use, 1816]). “Do you know the word cataglottism?” he asks. “It’s French kissing. Osculation is (plain) kissing. I particularly like collections of words, such as names for people who collect things (an oologist  is someone who collect birds’ eggs), or adjectives for animals and birds. There are the obvious ones, like bovine and feline, but just about any animal that was known to the ancients is going to have a nice Latinate or Greek word, like ovine (sheep), murine (mouse), corvine (crow), struthious (ostrich), vespertilian (bat).” Does he ever recommend reading the dictionary to others, such as customers who come into the bookstore? “Absolutely, if they’re interested in language,” he says, and he always recommends Merriam-Webster.
Prescribe or describe?
It’s no secret that dictionaries and views about what dictionaries should do are changing, another subject that interests Friedman. In 1994, Herbert C. Morton wrote a book about the intense controversy over the Webster’s Third edition (the one Friedman owned growing up) and the nature of language. “The Third was a lot more permissive and less prescriptivist than previous dictionaries had been,” Friedman explains. “They included words such as ain’t for the first time, for instance, and dropped a bunch of obscure one. All the ‘guardians’ of the language were outraged, and purists declared that the second edition was the last great Webster’s dictionary.” Today, most lexicographers feel on the whole that a dictionary’s business is to describe how language is used (as opposed to prescribing how it should be used). That goes all the way up to the OED, with its Word of the Year announcements—selfie being the one chosen for 2013.
Friedman readily admits he’s a pedant (he’s read a Latin dictionary, too). “I’ve had 17 letters published in the TLS,” he says. “One was correcting the date that Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 was released , and another was correcting the name of a restaurant in Brooklyn—it was Teddy’s.” He finds the formalized knowledge approach of New York Times word writer Ben Schott formulaic. “I look at those op-ed pieces he does in the Times—but there are some very fine distinctions that I don’t know how to articulate that make him not interesting.” Despite all the letter-writing, Friedman says while he’s very good at acquiring information that’s interesting to him, he’s terrible at writing it up. “So far, I have one published article under my name, an architectural review of the New Museum.” What he’d really like to do is write a weekly or monthly language column.
After Friedman finished the dictionary, he read the entire King James Bible. “That took me only a couple of years,” he says. “I’d read a couple of pages every night.” It was a similar experience to reading the dictionary, he says: “There’s a lot that isn’t that interesting, but then there are parts that are extraordinarily marvelous.” He’s a dyed-in-the-wool (first used 1580) atheist, he adds, but “I was reading the Bible as literature. Anyway, I’m Jewish.”
At the moment, he’s reading Chambers’s Biographical Dictionary. “It’s 1,500 pages long, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any, as I’ve been a bit backed up with all my other reading. I’m in the Rs, though, so I’m fairly far along.” It’s a never-ending story.