Thursday, August 18, 2011

`A Catalog of the Foibles of the Human Condition'

Thanks to Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED (Perigee, 2008), I’ve plugged another hole in the world with a word: wonderclout. It’s a noun and sounds like the name of a superhero or thoroughbred, but Shea defines it as “a thing that is showy but worthless.” Now do you see how essential a word it is? Here is Shea’s gloss:

“Surgically augmented breasts and a large vocabulary are two things that come to mind when I contemplate that which is showy and of little value, but I’m certain that you can think of others.”

Sure: Las Vegas, Avatar, Liberace, everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers three citations for “wonderclout,” all dating from Shakespeare’s early years. The first is from an early dictionary, Manipulus vocabulorum (1570) by Peter Levens: “A Wonderclout, blabbe, garrulus linguax.” You can figure out the modern English cognates, but I’m already feeling an attack of vertigo for writing about a book devoted to reading a dictionary in which appears a word taken from another dictionary, and that word refers to excessive wordiness.

Next, from 1593, is Gabriel Harvey’s Pierces Supererogation, or; A New Prayse of the Old Asse: “Ô wretched Atheisme, Hell but a scarecrow, and Heauen but a woonderclout in their doctrine.” The book is a contentious reply to Thomas Nashe, author of The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). Harvey was a college friend of Edmund Spencer.

The third citation is from the same book by Harvey: “Her meritorious worke, a Wonderclowte.”

I remember years ago reading that Dr. Oliver Sacks read the OED for pleasure. That makes perfect sense, as I’ve just illustrated, and I’ve often done the same, but the only dictionary I’ve ever read sequentially, cover to cover, is Johnson’s. (In his “Exordium,” Shea says drily: “I had been meaning to read the OED for years, but I always found some way to put it off.”) Just as Johnson defined “lexicographer” as “a harmless drudge,” so Shea cites “a large vocabulary” as an example of “wonderclout.” This is either false humility or self-deprecating boasting. He has earned the right to indulge in the latter, though his prose is clear, modest and largely colloquial. Reading the OED is only 224 pages long (the twenty volumes of the OED total 21,730 pages). It can be read in a sitting, though I wish it were longer and more detailed. It inspired finifugal feelings in a reader with an engouement for the OED, winningly described by Shea as “a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.”

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