Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Internet use 'good for the brain'

Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 16:00 UK

Internet use 'good for the brain'

Brain activity in an experienced internet user when carrying out simple reading task
Areas activated by reading a book in the brain of an experienced web user

For middle-aged and older people at least, using the internet helps boost brain power, research suggests.

A University of California Los Angeles team found searching the web stimulated centres in the brain that controlled decision-making and complex reasoning.

The researchers say this might even help to counteract the age-related physiological changes that cause the brain to slow down.

The study features in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults
Professor Gary Small
University of California Los Angeles

As the brain ages, a number of changes occur, including shrinkage and reductions in cell activity, which can affect performance.

It has long been thought that activities which keep the brain active, such as crossword puzzles, may help minimise that impact - and the latest study suggests that surfing the web can be added to the list.

Brain activity in an experienced internet user when searching the web
Web use stimulates much more activity in the same brain

Lead researcher Professor Gary Small said: "The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerised technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults.

"Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

The latest study was based on 24 volunteers aged between 55 and 76. Half were experienced internet users, the rest were not.

Compared with reading

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning - but only in those who were experienced web users.

Brain activity in a personal not used to using the web while reading
Brain activity in web newcomers: similar for reading and internet use

The researchers said that, compared to simple reading, the internet's wealth of choices required people to make decisions about what to click on in order to get the relevant information.

However, they suggested that newcomers to the web had not quite grasped the strategies needed to successfully carry out a web search.

Professor Smith said: "A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older."

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: "These fascinating findings add to previous research suggesting that middle-aged and older people can reduce their risk of dementia by taking part in regular mentally stimulating activities.

"Older web users - 'silver surfers' - are doing precisely this.

"Frequent social interactions, regular exercise and maintaining a balanced diet can also reduce dementia risk."

Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Use it or lose it may well be a positive message to keep people active but there is very little real evidence that keeping the brain exercised with puzzles, games or other activities can promote cognitive health and reduce the risk of dementia."

50 of your favourite words

Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 10:07 UK

50 of your favourite words

Story about man who read the OED in a year
Lots of sesquipedalians out there, judging by the response to our feature on the man who reads dictionaries for fun, Ammon Shea. We asked for your favourite words and were overwhelmed with nominations. Here we list 50 of the best.

1. To throw something (someone) out of a window is to defenestrate. I love this word because it immediately brings some interesting memories to the front, not to mention makes me think of some new things to toss out of a window.
Lee Nachtigal, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

2. Poodle-faker - a young man too much given to taking tea with ladies.
Jane, Pembroke

3. Omphaloskepsis (self-absorbed, navel-gazing). I'm not really a selfish person, but I do occasionally need someone to remind me to look up from my navel. Plus, things that have to do with belly-buttons are generally pretty fun.
Anise Brock, San Francisco, USA

4. Mallemaroking - the carousing of seamen in icebound ships. A wonderfully useful word! How many icebound ships do we all know?
Sue H, Tiverton

5. Spanghew - to cause (esp. a toad or frog) to fly into the air off the end of a stick. (In northern and Scottish use.) Why? Well, all one has to do is imagine the myriad situations in which one might use this word.
Michael Everson, Ireland

6. Scrimshanker - one who accepts neither responsibility nor work.
Maurice De Ville, Chesterfield

7. Zareba - a protective hedge around a village or camp, particularly in the Sudan. Used to great effect by PG Wodehouse in, for example, The Clicking Of Cuthbert, with his description of a Russian novelist: "Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair."
Peter Skinner, Morpeth, UK

8. I first heard Stephen Fry (of course!) use this on QI. Tmesis - To break one word with another. For example: dis-bloomin-graceful, un-flippin-believable. Use it mainly when talking to British Gas.
Colin Rogers, Maidenhead, Berks

9. I love the word quidnunc, which means one who gossips because it is a word I could use to describe a lot of people who fit the definition and they wouldn't know what I was saying.
Katie, Hickory Hills, IL, USA

10. Ischial callosities is a great description, because of its precision. It refers to the leather-like pads on a monkey's bum.
Paul Edward Hughes, Langley, Canada

11. One of my favourite words is cryptomnesia because it captures the meaning of a whole process that I previously never thought could make it into a single meaningful word. Of course it makes sense, and literally means "buried memory". I first came across it reading Jung when he described the process of forgetting the source of some information and assuming you've known it all along. That's such an ephemeral process, and I'm fascinated by it as much as the word used to describe it.
Alan Languirand, Ypsilanti MI, USA

12. One of my favourite words is urt. Urt is almost onomatopoeic, since an urt is a "leftover bit".
Eric McConnachie, Clear Lake, Ontario, CANADA

13. I like the word termagant meaning a quarrelsome shrew of a woman - because it's just obscure enough to get mixed up with "ptarmigan", a lovely bird.
Jan, Portland, Oregon, USA

14. Oxter- space under the arm (not the armpit) eg he walked down the street with a copy of the Times under his oxter.
David McLoughlin, Dublin, Ireland

15. Spelunking- the hobby or practice of exploring caves. The word just sounds good, I love it!
Rachel, Reading

16. Petrichor - the sweet smell of rain on dry earth. Although I wouldn't consider myself enough of a lexiphane (another good word, meaning "one who uses words pretentiously") to bring it up in every day conversation. Plus, living in Scotland, dry earth isn't a phenomenon I'm used to.
Natalie, Glasgow

17. Frippet (noun) - A flighty young woman prone to showing off. Could be used for the vast majority of contestants on Big Brother.
Charley, Bristol

18. Panglossian - Excessively or naively optimistic. The world needs more people like this now than ever!
VJ Patel, Luton, UK

19. I love the word proprioception (go ahead and look it up - I define it as knowing where you are in the world, where your body stops and everything else begins). I learned it in an undergraduate psychology course, probably. One of my favourite things about this word is that I can never remember it! I'll come across a use for it and then rack my brain for several minutes before having to give up and then of course suddenly remembering it (there's another word I have the same experience with but I can't remember what it is just now). There's a French term that I believe is tangentially relevant to proprioception - "jusqu'au bout". It means "to the end" but it was explained to me (by a nice young French man, many years ago!) in the context of "je t'aime jusqu'au bout", as in to love someone all the way to the ends of their fingers and tips of their ears (etc!).
Marni Law, Brisbane, Australia

20. If you ever fly into the US, then one of the questions you're asked on the entry form you have to fill in is "Have you ever been convicted of moral turpitude?" What a great word turpitude is! I've never heard it anywhere else, but I can guess what it means and that the required answer is "NO". Just the sound of it is faintly dubious, once you've realised that it's not something you use to clean your paint brushes with.
Stevie, Brighton

21. I like the word discombobulated. It has a staccato, mechanical sound and conjures up an image of a robot scrabbling to hold itself together when all its nuts and bolts suddenly start to fall out. Which is just how one feels when discombobulated!
Sally Ratapu, Auckland, New Zealand

22. Floccinaucinihilipilification - this word was used by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachhan 20 years ago while giving an interview. I was struck by his choice of word and the meaning of it!
Sudip Mazumder, London

23. Pusillanimous (lacking in courage or strength of purpose) just sounds funny and derisive and insulting.
David Benning, Davis, CA USA

24. Sepulchral - of or pertaining to the tomb. I just love the way it sounds and the movements my mouth must make to say it. To be sure, I rarely have the opportunity to use it, except during Halloween.
Gregory Strucaly, Apollo, PA, USA

25. I love the word sphygmomanometer, which is the medical instrument used to measure blood pressure. Try saying it after a drink or two.
Lucy, Cambridge, UK

26. Crepuscular, which means "of or like twilight".
Sarah, Bedford, UK

27. Sinecure - a position or office that requires little or no work but provides a salary.
Stephen Lynn, Antrim

28. Word: kakistocracy. Definition: The government of a state by the worst citizens. A very useful word!
Helen Collins, London, England

29. Chthonic: first encountered in Philip Pullman, then in the BBC series Rome, meaning dead, underground, of the nether world.
Mike Crompton, Hayfield, High Peak

30. Runcible as used in Edward Lear's poem The Owl and the Pussycat - given in Chambers Dictionary as meaning a pickle-fork but used in our household as anything, especially cutlery, which is slightly ill-matched or bent/crooked.
Kirsty Harrison, Binfield, Berkshire

31. I very much enjoy palimpsest because you would never think that there was a word for something so specific as that: "A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another." Its etymology is beautifully direct. From Ancient Greek "palin" meaning "again" (as in palindrome) and "psen" which means "to rub smooth".
William Kraemer, London, UK

32. I like susurrus which means a soft murmuring or rustling sound. Terry Pratchett used it to great effect in one of his books, and I couldn't help hearing the sound of a gentle breeze on tree leaves whenever I read it. Almost like magic.
Sarah, Woking

33. I just like the sound of the word tintinnabulation and if you look it up in the OED, it simply describes a sound made by the ringing of a bell. Imagine using such a word in everyday language.
Earl Okezie, Lokoja, Nigeria

34. Maieutic is one of my favourite obscure words. It means pertaining to intellectual midwifery and describes as no other word does a phenomenon that happens more often than you might think. It is very rewarding when you can match the moment to the word.
Martin Ackland, London

35. Crenellate - to furnish a wall with crenels or battlements, the rectangular "gaps" seen atop castle towers. For me, this word conjures up images of seaside holidays and carefully constructed sandcastles.
Simon Bonner, Liverpool, UK

36. Borborygmus - the rumbling sound that comes from an empty stomach.
Rupam, Ashburn, VA USA

37. Fug. I love jazz and have always thought a cellar jazz bar with a hazy atmosphere created through captivating music and hazy smoke would be perfect if called "The Fug". However, the smoking ban now prohibits any kind of fug. And "The Sanitary" just doesn't have the right ring.
Julian Williams, Stourport-on-Severn

38. Metanoia - the act or process of changing one's mind or way of life - is so beautiful.
Sa Smith

39. Estivate (the opposite of hibernate), because that is what I do. With the onset of autumn, I am looking forward to awakening from my summer torpor. The colder the day, the happier and more energized I am.
DJ Leslie, Falls Church, Virginia, USA

40. Rodomontade is my favourite, meaning boastful. Difficult to use in conversation though!
Kevin Murphy, Glasgow

41. Slubberdegullion is a favourite word of mine, meaning, roughly ,a worthless person. Throw it in next time you're gossiping about someone.
Bob Baker, Dunster, England

42. I like erythrismal, meaning "red by nature". An example would be a fox or a robin's breast. However, I am a redhead, so may be biased
Judith-Anne MacKenzie, London

43. Chatoyant is a word I learned from a poet/artist friend, and I teach it, or use it, whenever possible, which is quite often. It means something that glows from deep within, like a cat's eye (chat), or star sapphires, or highly polished hard woods.
Roxann , Alexandria, MN, USA

44. I like enervating (to weaken physically) because it sounds like it SHOULD mean the opposite to what it DOES mean.
Bob, Edinburgh

45. Tatterdemalion - a person with tattered clothing or of unkempt appearance. This word has, to my mind, a "bouncy" rhythm to it and use it often. I know several people who could have this word attributed to them...
Graham, Luton, England

46. Mellifluous - sweet, pleasant-sounding speech, words or music - is a my favourite word, though I suppose it couldn't really be classed as obscure. It's so beautifully onomatopoeic.
Maura Evans, Bradford

47. A word I recently learned and immediately liked, is ideation. It's like you take a creative word and turn it into a verb, make it creatING! Ideation means "the process of thought" or "the conceptualization of a mental image".
Theresa, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

48. I used to love the word syzygy because, in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, its definition (in the mathematical sense) went something like: "A group of rational, integral functions, which, when severally multiplied together, the sum of the products vanishes identically."
Reggie Thomson, Cambridge, England

49. My favourite word is sesquipedalian. From the Latin, sesquipedalis, meaning a foot-and-a-half, it means given to using long words.
Chris Howard, Morden

...which is probably a fitting adjective for...

50. I'm disposed to immediately feel dyspathy with a secretary like Shea, but after goving at his story for a while, I begin to hansardize. There's no point in being philodoxical just because an apparently mundane subject deeply happifies another. I may stroke my natiform chin sceptically at Shea's cachinnations, but if such things truly make him tripudiate, then who am I to be the pejorist?
Rob Stradling, Cardiff

Underwear as outwear

Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 16:52 UK

Underwear as outwear

Bra models in shop window


Elaborate bra straps. Designer trunks riding above low-slung jeans. The fashion for flaunting one's underwear may have more to do with conspicuous consumption than a decline in decency, says Lisa Jardine.

When I was at school, the whispered warning "Charlie's dead" alerted a girl to the fact that her petticoat was showing under her lovat-green school skirt. Horror of horrors!

Modelling the New Look in the 1940s
Today the petticoat alone would suffice

From the age of 11 we all knew that our underwear ought never to be visible - a flash of white below the skirt-line was both an embarrassment, and potentially the occasion for a reprimand from a school prefect.

There are various theories as to where that curious phrase came from. It seems to date from World War II, and my own favourite explanation is that in the 1940s, the window-blinds were lowered whenever there was a death in the house.

The dipping half-slip was like a lowered window-shade. More fanciful versions involving Bonny Prince Charlie or Charles II, are, I am afraid, historically implausible, though no doubt a number of listeners will write or e-mail me to say that they prefer them.

Until relatively recently, visible bra straps were treated as a sign that the wearer was, if not actually a fallen woman, at least someone who took insufficient care with her appearance - a likely symptom of slack behaviour in other areas of her life.

A student of mine whose mother ran a fancy lingerie shop in Delhi once told me that her mother's customers were not prepared to buy silk camisoles with spaghetti straps because the maid who laundered them would consider them - and therefore their owner - scandalous.

Lisa Jardine

I am sure there are those who mutter that flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals

There could hardly be more of a contrast with fashions in underwear, and acceptable attitudes towards its display in public, in the era of consumer affluence we have been living through, these past 10 years.

It has been a time for ostentatiously showing off surplus wealth. And one of the signs that a woman has money to spare has been for her to let beautiful, expensive items of underwear show. Lavish lingerie departments have blossomed in department stores across the country.

The impulse not to keep a prize purchase hidden from view has been reflected in the design of fashion too - from High Street to haute couture. On the catwalks at this year's London Fashion Week, layering of diaphanous garments, with equally gorgeous underskirts and bodices, left nothing at all about the underwear beneath to the imagination.

Good for the goose...

This modern fashion trend, which seems to us to reflect our more easy-going attitudes to our bodies, is strikingly similar to the layering and glimpsing of undergarments of English 16th and early 17th Century costume.

Man's linen shirt, embroidered in black silk c.1585-1620 (courtesy of Fashion Museum, Bath, photo by Brenda Norrish
Embroidered undershirt for men

This week sees the posthumous publication of the fourth volume in the great costume historian Janet Arnold's meticulously detailed series, Patterns of Fashion.

Having documented every item of outer clothing for the period, Arnold has turned her attention to Tudor and Stuart underwear. The book is sumptuously illustrated with photographs of surviving items of the clothing our forebears wore next to the skin, including gorgeous detail of lavish embroidery, lace-work and stitching. And it shows clearly the ways in which men and women of substance also enjoyed letting their expensive underwear show.

Indeed, the most striking difference between underwear-flaunting then and now seems to have been that in Tudor times, it was not only women, but men too who adopted fashion designs which allowed them to reveal their undergarments.

The process by which this gradual uncovering happened over time is fascinating.

The woman's smock and man's shirt, made of linen, were originally very similar garments - calf-length and long-sleeved, with a simple neck-opening. Worn next to the skin and washable, they protected the layers of finer fabric above from the wearer's sweat and dirt.

Linen underwear offered a practical way of being hygienic while wearing outer garments of heavy expensive cloths, richly embroidered and adorned with jewels which could never safely be cleaned.

Over the shirt the man wore a structured doublet, over her smock the woman wore a bodice - or pair of bodies, as it was called then - with inserted strips of stiffening.

The woman's layers of petticoats, underskirts and farthingales were attached to her bodice by "points" (ornamental ties) drawn through purpose-made eyelets, as were a man's hose or leggings.

These conjoined undergarments provided a base armature on which the sumptuous outer garments were displayed to produce an imposing, sharply defined, tailored shape to the ensemble.

Like my ruff?

Over time, the shirts and smocks of the wealthy came to be made of finer and finer linen, and were decorated with increasing lavishness at neckline and cuff.

Dita van Teese on a giant wonderbra
The bra has come out from under

The fashionable neck frill and gathered cuffs used more and more linen, so that special starching and setting were required to make them sit more tidily around the garment's neckline. They were eventually separated from the undershirt or smock entirely, for ease of washing and maintaining, and evolved further in decorative lavishness as garments in their own right.

The neck frill grew oversized, into the elaborate, face-framing ruffs which for many of us define late Tudor dress, as it features in any number of formal portraits of royalty and nobility. Starching these became a laundry skill in its own right - the very first specialist ruff-launderer in England is supposed to have been a Flemish woman, Mistress Dingen Van der Passe, who brought Dutch-standard starching to London in 1564.

Detached ruffs and decorative cuffs were securely attached to the outer garments for each wearing, using metal pins. It has been suggested that in economic terms, these pins are the first genuinely disposable commodities of emerging consumer culture, since they were bought in bulk, used once and then discarded (though there are records of the more frugal having their bent pins straightened for re-use).

Even without integral layered and embroidered neck-frills and cuffs, the amount of coloured embroidery on the upper part of shirt and smock continued to grow, transforming the simple undergarment into an object of beauty in its own right.

Wearing a 1588 bodice
A Tudor-era bodice, with a roll to hold the skirt out suggestively at the back

At a workshop on Tudor underwear I attended last week, run by the Early Modern Dress and Textiles Research Network, it was suggested that once these items of clothing were decorated with silver and gold thread-work - so they became both uncomfortable next to the skin, and difficult to launder - another, simpler smock or shirt had to be worn beneath them, adding further to the layering.

As the shirt and smock grew more highly-decorated, ornamental openings were slashed in men's doublets and women's gowns to allow the wearer to show off the beauty of the embroidered blackwork on their underwear. Loose outer gowns, kirtles and waistcoats enabled women to offer revealing glimpses of the elegant structuring of their underwear corsetry.

Austerity measures

I am sure there are those who mutter that recent flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals and decency.

Elizabeth I
The Virgin Queen flaunts her wealth

The close equivalence of fashions worn in the Tudor period suggests otherwise. The women who wore the extraordinarily smock- and undershirt-revealing styles of the late 16th century had to be seen as paragons of virtue by all. No well-born woman could risk being construed as provocative on the basis of what she wore.

Yet fashionable Tudor ladies were as be-ruffed and cuffed, and parading of their embroidered underwear, as their male counterparts. Take a close look at any of the many familiar, exquisitely detailed portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, and you will quickly spot the heavily embroidered smock glimpsed beneath her bodice, the hints of lace at throat and wrist, betokening lace-edged and finely stitched needlework under her bejewelled gown.

What Tudor fashions share with more recent styles is the ostentatious display of garments on which the wearer has lavished significant sums of money. In both cases the expensive item is clearly a frippery - an unnecessary extravagance announcing that the person wearing it has extra cash to spend.

I wonder whether, in the current financial climate, as frugality returns, it will once again become unseemly to display an elaborately embroidered bra, or show net petticoats under a twirling skirt?

The whispered warning "Charlie's dead" dates from a previous age of austerity, after WWII. According to the Governor of the Bank of England, we stand poised once again on the brink of a recession.

If things go as badly as the predictions of the gloomiest pundits suggest, will it soon be the case that women once again begin to alert one another to the danger of an immodest glimpse of petticoat?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The man who reads dictionaries

Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 00:03 UK

The man who reads dictionaries

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Ammon Shea
The OED is the Everest of dictionaries
Ammon Shea spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words - and he rates poring over a dictionary as enriching as reading a novel. Why?

The prospect of talking to a man who reads dictionaries for fun prompts a sudden vocabulary-insecurity complex and a fear that every word he utters might sound like a painful medical condition.

But thanks to Ammon Shea's belief that long words only hinder conversations, there's no need to consult any dictionaries while he clearly explains his eccentric hobby.

"I'm not against big words per se or fancy or obscure words, obviously I love them, but I'm opposed to using them for their own sake," he says.

"If words are to form a communication, you use them as a tool to communicate to people and it's pointless to intentionally use a word that no-one else knows."

Cachinnator - one who laughs too much or too loudly
Dyspathy - the opposite of sympathy
Gove - to stare stupidly
Hansardize - to change one's opinion
Happify - to make happy
Natiform - buttock-shaped
Pejorist - one who thinks the world is getting worse
Philodox - one who is in love with his own opinion
Secretary - one who is privy to a secret
Tripudiate - to dance, skip or leap for joy

Mr Shea, a 37-year-old former furniture remover in New York, has spent 12 months conquering what he describes as the Everest of dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by ploughing through 20 volumes weighing a total of 137lbs.

In the process, he became the Morgan Spurlock of lexicologists, devouring words for eight to 10 hours a day, which caused him severe headaches, deteriorating eyesight and injuries to his back and neck. So why bother?

"I've always enjoyed reading dictionaries and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great dictionary, except for the plot.

Tell us obscure words you're fond of, and why, using the link below
We will feature the best

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a dictionary but not necessarily in the order that you would think."

If you come across a word like "remord" (to recall with a touch of regret) it's impossible to read that word without thinking of things that you regret yourself, he says, or to read "unbepissed" (not having been urinated on) without a chuckle.

Winter sun

"Knowing what to call something makes me more aware of that thing. For instance, it's not terribly useful for me to know that [the sound of] leaves rustled by the trees is a psithurism.

"I don't want to walk down the street with my girlfriend saying: 'Listen, there's a psithurism.' But knowing it means I pay more attention to it."

Similarly, knowing that "undisonant" is the adjective to describe the sound of crashing waves and that "apricity" is the warmth of the winter sun brings these things more often to mind.

WH Auden
For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways
Writer WH Auden

"It's not easy to use them in conversation and so I enjoy them for their own sake. They are like one-word poems."

Turning page after page of unfamiliar words made him sometimes feel like he was reading another language, he says. That was dispiriting but also intriguing, because it showed how rich and powerful the English language is.

But absorbing so much made Mr Shea lose his grasp on his normal vocabulary. He recalls being fascinated when reading the definition for the word "glove" before he realised it was a word he already knew.

"That happened frequently. I guess it gave me a useless large vocabulary and in the short-term I lost my normal vocabulary. I would go to the shop and forget the word for milk. Momentarily I'm looking for the cold, white stuff."

Mr Shea is not alone in his love of dictionaries. WH Auden waxed lyrical about them and Arthur Scargill said his father would read one every day because his life depended on the power to master words.


Thousands of avid Scrabble players read dictionaries looking for words, especially those with a high-scoring J, Q, X or Z, says Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Collins Dictionaries. And crossword fans devour dictionaries for the same reason.

"We also have people writing to us who have been very interested in obscure words and obscure definitions.

"A student in Iraq was trying to learn English and he sat down trying to learn every word in the dictionary, starting at the beginning with A and working all the way through.

My father still reads the dictionary everyday. He says your life depends on your power to master words
Arthur Scargill, 1982

"It's probably not the best way to learn English, and you'd learn many more than you would need."

But dictionaries are a wonderful source of learning about the origins of the English language, she says, and especially the Greek and Latin roots to many of the words.

Collins, which records everyday language rather than all known words, is involved in a campaign to save some of the lesser-used words from being edited out of its future editions. Stephen Fry, for instance, has championed "fubsy", which means "short and stout".

Collins removes words from its dictionaries that are not used enough

"One of the nice things about dipping in and out of a dictionary is that although people are very comfortable with the vocabulary levels they have, there are some good fun words in there that offer an additional dimension of interest," says Ms Higgleton.

Some of Mr Shea's favourites garnered from the OED include "assy", which means behaving like an ass, and natiform, which means "buttock-shaped".

It's impossible to be intimidated by a dictionary that uses a word like assy, he says, and to pick one up and glance through one - rather than just opening one when in trouble with a word - can be a captivating experience.

And how much of what he has read has stayed between his ears?

Throwing 10 semi-hard words ( from the OED at him, Shea correctly guessed five definitions.

That's a considerably higher success rate than many of us would have scored, after reading 59 million words.

The rival to the Bible

Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2008 12:37 UK

The rival to the Bible

Codex Sinaiticus

By Roger Bolton

What is probably the oldest known Bible is being digitised, reuniting its scattered parts for the first time since its discovery 160 years ago. It is markedly different from its modern equivalent. What's left out?

The world's oldest surviving Bible is in bits.

For 1,500 years, the Codex Sinaiticus lay undisturbed in a Sinai monastery, until it was found - or stolen, as the monks say - in 1844 and split between Egypt, Russia, Germany and Britain.

Now these different parts are to be united online and, from next July, anyone, anywhere in the world with internet access will be able to view the complete text and read a translation.

Roger Bolton presents the Oldest Bible on Radio 4 on Monday, 6 October, at 1100 BST

For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today's bible.

The Codex, probably the oldest Bible we have, also has books which are missing from the Authorised Version that most Christians are familiar with today - and it does not have crucial verses relating to the Resurrection.

Anti-Semitic writings

The fact this book has survived at all is a miracle. Before its discovery in the early 19th Century by the Indiana Jones of his day, it remained hidden in St Catherine's Monastery since at least the 4th Century.

Pope at St Catherine's Monastery
The monastery at the base of Mt Sinai

It survived because the desert air is ideal for preservation and because the monastery, on a Christian island in a Muslim sea, remained untouched, its walls unconquered.

Today, 30 mainly Greek Orthodox monks, dedicated to prayer, worship there, helped as in ages past by the Muslim Bedouin. For this place is holy to three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; a land where you can still see the Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses.

The monastery itself has the greatest library of early manuscripts outside the Vatican - some 33,000, and a collection of icons second to none.

Not surprisingly, it is now a World Heritage Site and has been called a veritable Ark, bringing spiritual treasures safely through the turbulent centuries. In many people's eyes the greatest treasure is the Codex, written in the time of the first Christian Emperor Constantine.

When the different parts are digitally united next year in a £1m project, anyone will be able to compare and contrast the Codex and the modern Bible.

Firstly, the Codex contains two extra books in the New Testament.

One is the little-known Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome in the 2nd Century - the other, the Epistle of Barnabas. This goes out of its way to claim that it was the Jews, not the Romans, who killed Jesus, and is full of anti-Semitic kindling ready to be lit. "His blood be upon us," Barnabas has the Jews cry.


Had this remained in subsequent versions, "the suffering of Jews in the subsequent centuries would, if possible, have been even worse", says the distinguished New Testament scholar Professor Bart Ehrman.

Memorial to child deportations in the Holocaust
The suffering of Jews in the subsequent centuries would, if possible, have been even worse had the Epistle of Barnabas remained
Professor Bart Ehrman

And although many of the other alterations and differences are minor, these may take some explaining for those who believe every word comes from God.

Faced with differing texts, which is the truly authentic one?

Mr Ehrman was a born again Bible-believing Evangelical until he read the original Greek texts and noticed some discrepancies.

The Bible we now use can't be the inerrant word of God, he says, since what we have are the sometimes mistaken words copied by fallible scribes.

"When people ask me if the Bible is the word of God I answer 'which Bible?'"

The Codex - and other early manuscripts - do not mention the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and omit key references to the Resurrection, which the Archbishop of Canterbury has said is essential for Christian belief.

Other differences concern how Jesus behaved. In one passage of the Codex, Jesus is said to be "angry" as he healed a leper, whereas the modern text records him as healing with "compassion".

Also missing is the story of the woman taken in adultery and about to be stoned - until Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (a Jewish sect), inviting anyone without sin to cast the first stone.

Nor are there words of forgiveness from the cross. Jesus does not say "Father forgive them for they know not what they do".

Fundamentalists, who believe every word in the Bible is true, may find these differences unsettling.

But the picture is complicated. Some argue that another early Bible, the Codex Vaticanus, is in fact older. And there are other earlier texts of almost all the books in the bible, though none pulled together into a single volume.

Many Christians have long accepted that, while the Bible is the authoritative word of God, it is not inerrant. Human hands always make mistakes.

"It should be regarded as a living text, something constantly changing as generation and generation tries to understand the mind of God," says David Parker, a Christian working on digitising the Codex.

Others may take it as more evidence that the Bible is the word of man, not God.