by Barbara Kamienski
Published at 2015-11-04
Ah, reference books! What would we do without them? Whether lined up in neat rows on library shelves or haphazardly stacked on, under, or somewhere near a cluttered desk, they hold glorious promise: more knowledge than we could ever hope to absorb, systematically arranged, and clearly explained.
There are encyclopaedias, thesauruses, almanacs, yearbooks, atlases, chronologies, concordances, and digests. And let's not forget repair manuals, phone directories, and cookbooks. They all meet the definition of reference book as found in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: a "book intended to be consulted for information on individual matters rather than read continuously."
But what would the world be if everyone used things only for their intended purposes? As he describes in his 2008 book, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea read the venerable twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary from start to finish. (By the time he reached the 400 pages devoted to words beginning with “un,” he was “near catatonic.”)
In his memoir On the Move, the late Oliver Sacks writes that when, as a young student, he won an award that came with £50, he spent most of it on the OED: “I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.” So much for not reading reference books continuously.
One of the most distinctive features of the OED—that monumental accomplishment that was half a century in the making*—is its use of sample sentences and phrases to not only trace etymology but also document and illustrate usage. Thus it may happen that a person engaged in the straightforward pursuit of checking the definition of a word may become sidetracked. All it takes is for the eye to stray down the page, and a quick search for the exact definition of, say, servitude becomes a leisurely exploration of sesquipedalian** (used as early as 1656), which comes with several samples, among them a sentence from Trollope’s 1857 novel Barchester Towers: “This she sacrificed to the avarice of Mrs. Proudie’s metropolitan sesquipedalian serving-man.”
Of course, not all dictionaries use sentences from literature to illustrate usage. Most examples are made up by, I suppose, the lexicographers themselves. Mandate: use it in a sentence. Well, let’s see. “This book contains too many sesquipedalian words.” Sure, it’s bland, but it’ll do. But let’s give the humans behind the dry, sometimes clinical, tone of dictionaries some credit. They are word nerds, and they work with language for a living. It stands to reason that they might from time to time inject a bit more imagination into those samples.
Which brings us to the case of Jez Burrows. One day, while looking up a definition in the New Oxford American Dictionary, he stumbled upon this example sentence for the word study: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” “Seeing this incredibly heavy and evocative sentence in amongst it all really struck me and seemed like the beginning of a short story,” he said. Since that discovery, Burrows has compiled quite a collection of (very) short stories composed entirely of sample dictionary sentences. Here’s my favourite:
Worst Picnic Ever
For want of a better location we ate our picnic lunch in the cemetery. She buttered the toast; the coffin was lowered into the grave.
Not surprisingly, Burrow’s stories have aroused quite a bit of interest. You can check out the stories here, and while you’re there, click the Press button for links to media feedback, including an interview on CBC’s As It Happens.
Inspired to try your hand at it? Send us your short stories! We’ll post the best, because (as we find under this definition) “Some people get a bang out of reading that stuff”!
*See Simon Winchester’s riveting books about its genesis: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1999) and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003).
**Look it up!