Saturday, August 8, 2015

Reading Set: An OED stunt journalism project

Is it me or have we seen this one before?
In Reading the OED, under the letter 'S', Ammon Shea issues a friendly exhortation to the reader to read the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary which is for the word 'Set'. Within the proposal one can notice some challenge undertone  which makes it too good to pass. So, having already read his experiences with the whole dictionary, liking the word 'set' myself, and wanting to experience some stunt  journalism firsthand I decided to take him up on the challenge.

The first difficulty was to actually be able to read the words. Yes, I have a set handy, but that is the 4 in 1 compact version, the one with the included magnifying glass. For a quick look up I can  easily do without any magnification, but not wanting to to reenact any of Shea's physical discomforts I brought out the glass. Setting it at about two inches from my eyes and five from the page I got comfortable sized text.

Now, since I decided not to rush through the definitions, I decided to break the job into 5 to 10 minute segments. I figured this would give me both the experience and the greater attention span without any of the physical strain. Since my available deskspace was already taken over by other projects I decided to lay down the dictionary flat on the floor and read hunched over it.

As I read I found that my gaze is constantly wandering from the older quotations to the the newer ones and from the quotations in general to the next definition. I attribute this to my greater interest to actual meanings and elegant corralling of signification than Old or Middle-English archaeological sifting. This is just me; I'm sure older eras of the language can be fascinating enough for a lifetime, but I'll pass on that. Also, after two or three of the quotations, generally the more recent ones, I get already the sense spin at hand and don't really feel the need for more.  Yet, there are many more still to go through and one feels under some sort of obligation to at least acknowledge them.

Part of the whole in stunt reporting is embarrassing yourself when explaining your project to others.  One day when my nephew, Matt, came in for a visit he found the oed lying open on the floor and asked what was it. I took the opportunity to briefly introduce him to it telling him that it was the largest dictionary in the English language.

"But, what is it doing here?"

"Oh, I'm in the middle of a project: I'm trying to read all the entries for the word 'set', which I'm told is the longest defined word in the book here. Someone says its quite difficult to go through all of them. It is 25 pages in all."

He, quite prudently, did not pursue the topic, thinking perhaps that his uncle was odder than he previously imagined.

On another occasion my dad came up and asked me

"Are you looking up something?"

"No, I'm trying to read all the definitions of a word"

Next day he asked again

"Are you looking up something?" as if the previous conversation had never happened.

"I told you yesterday. Do you remember?"

"Ah, yes I remember. You told me that you were reading it because it has lots of words."

Anything interesting?

The senses themselves generally do stand well separate, yet sometimes the senses  threatened to go and stay in unfamiliar territory, but they always came back. After all, most of the definitions are senses of put or place, only each differentiating from the other in their own particular twist. Sometimes however I cannot tell one sense from another like sense 1 (first def) and sense 15 (third def)  which both refer to the setting of a heavenly body like the sun: they both look to me the same (oh, I get it now, one is the verb and the other is the verb as a noun […]).  It also appears that s.34 (setting a fire) could be included in s.25, but a distinction is made, which I've not yet  fathomed.  Alternate spellings of other words like suit or sit add some amount to the bulk. In at least one instance these came round in a full circle.  A hen can set itself on eggs (s. 5b) or if presumably it doesn't want to on its own, you can either set the hen to the eggs (s. 1c) or set the eggs to the hen (s. 15d). This pun has been made before, but isn't this an instance fowl play?   Before brushing ourselves clean of feathers let's not forget that also the eggs themselves, as a clutch, can be a set (s. 9e).

Just by reading this word I also got the eerie sense that Shea describes about doubting if one is speaking English at all when talking to others.  There are so many shades of meaning that one feels dizzy.

The sources are varied and mostly obscure to me. The most notable find is the letters of king Richard III taken as a source.

As for typos I only found one on s. 109 where "to cause to move" is printed as "to canse to move" as far as I can tell.  Even with the glass I can't really be sure if it's a misprint or not, though I believe the type was not set right for this word (Ok. I'll stop now).

So in true stunt fashion, I must state what I've learned from the experience. I've learned that I wouldn't read the OED more than an hour daily (30 minutes appears to be my max) even if paid. I've learned that even one word can surprise you with a kaleidoscope of meanings; that citations can be boring  as [fill in the blank]. I've learned why the setter dogs are called that (they are set to game), how old are pancakes (dating at least to the XV century; try to to find where I got that from), what do you set on the Ready, set, go! (your muscles), and that there is more than one way to have your eggs set.


Post a Comment