Review: The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press, 2003, 250 pages).

Who knew that a book about the writing of a massive dictionary would be so fascinating?!

It could be that I enjoyed this book because I'm just a downright nerdy-nerd, or that I love books and words and language, or even that I love the history of...anything, really. Whatever the reason, this book truly is worth reading. I don't know how he does it, but Simon (my buddy, my pal) makes any subject he touches seem interesting: the making of the OED, the eruption of Krakatoa, the birth of modern geology and mapping. Man writes about it ALL.

In just 250 pages, Simon traces the development of the OED from its humble beginnings as a topic for a Philological Society paper in the 1850s; through the herculean task of gathering, sorting, categorizing, and defining EVERY SINGLE ENGLISH WORD; to its triumphant completion 70 years later. We learn about the dictionary's rocky beginnings, when no publisher wanted to touch it because it didn't seem like it would ever be profitable. We read about the ascension of James Murray to the editor's chair and his shepherding of the dictionary through most of its development, patiently and painstakingly working (along with assistants) to hunt down etymologies, obscure references, and earliest uses. Luckily, Murray had 11 children, so he could always call up more helpers.

Perhaps most interesting is the discussion near the end of some of the volunteer readers and word-hunters who corresponded with Murray. One of the most helpful and prolific volunteers is the subject of another of Simon's books, The Professor and the Madman. I'm talking here about W. C. Minor, an army surgeon and convicted murderer who spent most of his life in an insane asylum. His methodical notations of words from obscure books, and letters and notes on such to Murray, were crucial to the success of the dictionary in meeting its publication deadlines.

So go read The Meaning of Everything, if only to gaze in awe at the cover photo that features James Murray's mad facial hair.

1 comment:

  1. So who had time to shave?

    By the time the book was finished, new words had come into being, and old words were falling into disuse.