WORLD OF WORDS: Taking an intellectual journey into a knowledge wilderness
SOME years ago, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz challenged the audience to read the entire volume of Encyclopedia Britannica and all the journals published by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS). It would be an adventure unlike any other -- an intellectual journey into a knowledge wilderness.
As time passed by, I was engrossed in issues pertaining to brick and butter and occasionally that of survival. But I did check what would be in store if I were to take up the challenge. It would been an intellectual version of climbing the Everest without supplemental oxygen or summiting K2 during winter. Needless to say, the odds were insurmountable.
Let's begin with the MBRAS journals. MBRAS was established by British administrators who were interested in "Malayan studies".
The journals published since 1877 pioneered studies on Malayan culture, history, literature, botany, ecology, archeology and anthropology. Reading such dense texts that have been around for 135 years was no easy feat. I gave up.
I checked the Encyclopedia Britannica. It has been around for 244 years, the first edition came out in Scotland in 1768.
At its peak, it consisted of 65,000 entries, in 44 million words, covering 33,000 pages with 24,000 images. There were 9,500 contributors for the 32-volume set, not including its indexes and a Propedia, an introductory volume that was started in its 15th edition.
I did a bit of homework on our very own Kamus Dewan, the most respected publication by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). It first appeared in 1970 and is considered to be the most reliable dictionary in Bahasa Malaysia. After all, it was published by DBP, the language and literature guardian of the land.
Compared to the earlier Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which had 414,825 entries, with 1.4 million citations, spread over 15,487 pages, the Kamus Dewan is more manageable. I was determined to read the 1994 edition of Kamus Dewan in a year and publish a book about it. That was 18 year ago. It started with "a" (which it defines as huruf pertama abjad Rumi) and ends with "zuriat" (keturunan, benih), in all 1,480 pages. If I were to finish reading it in a year, I'll have to go through 106 entries a day or about four pages a day. It was doable.
Sadly, I stopped 15 days later at page 60. The last word that I underlined was "asang" (a Brunei Malay word), which means insang or fish gill. Kamus Dewan has expanded since then. The newest edition (its fourth) has 34,578 entries, 24,180 sub-entries and 24,142 phrases.
The English language, too, has evolved. In March 2008, the millionth English word was coined, so said Global Language Monitor which follows every word used in major dictionaries. Wow!
Shakespeare wrote 37 plays using a total of 936,443 words. But his vocabulary was hardly, hardly I must stress, 27,870 words. He commanded hardly two per cent of the English vocabulary, yet he was one of its best-known writers!
So, what do you do with the OED and Encyclopedia Britannica. Read every page of it.
Ammon Shea did that. He read every word in the OED. His book Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is, to quote a reviewer, a real Super Size Me of Lexicography. In 26 chapters, he narrated his obsession with wit and humour and a manic obsession of a learned man. Even reading his adventure is exhilarating. It was an engaging intellectual journey into the world of words -- replete with the strangest words, the weirdest explanation and the most hilarious meanings.
A.J. Jacobs has completed another feat, reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 33,000 pages of texts and lived to tell the tale. He came out with a book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest To Become the Smartest Person in the World.
Jacobs and Ammon Shea had reached the peak of intellectual mountaineering. I must now go back to Kamus Dewan or perhaps the journals of MBRAS.
I am not going to get rich because of that nor will I be more clever. At least, I'll tell my grandchildren I have done something crazy, intellectually.
So, don't bother me for the next one year.
JOHAN JAAFFAR | email@example.com | Twitter: @Johan_Jaaffar New Straits Times Online Columnist Saturday, November 03, 2012