The erudite and generous MMcM has sent me a copy of Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, and I will be enjoying exploring it. This is not one of the silly books with pseudo-words of the type I discussed here; Mrs. Byrne spent ten years trawling through “specialized dictionaries and unabridged works too bulky for browsing,” as her husband’s introduction puts it (though I personally have never found a book “too bulky for browsing”) and plucked out her favorite oddities. Some of them are disappointingly ordinary (paladin, screed, trefoil), but the vast majority are genuinely rare, and many cry out to be used more widely: cooster ‘a worn-out libertine,’ crapaudine ‘swinging on top and bottom pivots like a door,’ lippitude ‘sore or bleary eyes.’
This ties in nicely with Nicholson Baker’s review (from the NY Times Book Review) of Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, which I was reading just before the Byrne book arrived. Shea “owns about a thousand dictionaries,” some of which he bought from a book dealer named Madeline, who owns 20,000 dictionaries. These are my kind of people. At any rate, Shea decided to spend a year reading the OED (supported by his tolerant girlfriend, a psychology teacher, one presumes, because he spends all day in the basement of the Hunter College library, trying to avoid eyestrain and madness: “Sometimes I get angry at the dictionary and let loose with a muffled yell”), and the book sounds like an enjoyable read, as of course is the review. I’ll quote the odd-word bits:
There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose)… Acnestis — the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl — to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation… He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words. And a number of Shea’s finds deserve prompt resurrection: vicambulist, for instance — a person who wanders city streets.
Some of these are in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, but most aren’t; I imagine if you spent long enough at it you could compile several such books without repetition. English is a bottomless word-hoard.