From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary. Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy"--and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from "the irredeemably famous" Samuel Johnson to the "short, pale, smug and boastful" schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making--how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated--and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium--the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it--and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption. The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project--a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.
But the most telling sign of all comes when I start reading and folding over pages—as I do—when I find something notable, whether it’s a beautiful passage or a pithy epigraph or something that I expect to be of use in my research or something that’s just silly and laughable. As the pages fold, a good/evil ratio starts to emerge, and most books find themselves firmly on one side of it. Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary chooses the wrong side.
It’s, well, “criminal” is a strong word, but surely at least a misdemeanor or venial sin to have a story as full of intrinsic interest as this one fall into your lap and make such a sow’s ear out of it. Winchester comes off both stupid and repulsive, with his pandering and sniggering and constant dweebish insistence on embracing a sort of cod-version of the idiom and attitudes of the era about which he is writing. (In addition to my main tags, which note the date I finish reading a book, I have started including secondary tags when books fall into what I once dubbed “serial autoecholalia”, when an author obviously, partway through writing a work, suddenly remembered or learned a particular word existed, was taken with it, and proceeds to throw it in willy-nilly for a while, before getting bored or embarrassed and letting it drop again. In this book that word is “martinet”. Everyone’s a “martinet” as long as they disagree with James Murray (the august editor of the early OED), and then we get to see how they were just grumpy or whatever and still have inner humanity when they get over themselves and come in on the side of manifest lexicographical destiny.) It’s all, and this isn’t a real quote, “Mr. Dickon Hulme, Esq., of Thistlebottom Lane, North Glumwich, contributed definitions of numerous words concerned with the Orient, whose mysteries he had penetrated during his sojourn in Kashmir with the 21st Coldpuddle Rifles.” You can’t fool us, Simon Winchester. Books have publication dates, right inside the front cover for everyone to see. AND YOURS IS 2003.
You get the idea—the epic tale of the greatest book ever, mostly ruined by Winchester’s dumbdowningness and creepy Victorianophilia (if he doesn’t vote BNP, it’s because he’ll die a Tory like his dear old dad, and if he does, it’s because Cameron will bend over for the Europeans and blackfellows. That’s actually way harsh, and I disavow it immediately after having said it, but it’s the feeling you get.) There are great moments, like learning that South Africa had its own equivalent of the Academie Francaise (it would) or just how many of the OED’s contributors were in asylums or jail (all of ‘em!), but they’re just a little bit too compromised by weird Colonel Blimp moves, fetishization of English as qualitatively superior to other languages, total lack (as the fetishization thing perhaps implies) of linguistic knowledge, total lack of respect for his audience, and all-around assiness.
Winchester's love for words and the OED comes through in his prose riddled with words (fittingly enough) that will expand your vocabulary -- "gallimaufry," "polymathic," and "oleaginous" to name a few. Furthermore, his research shines through as one gets the sense that he's telling only a fraction of the stories he could. Even as I learned more about the history of the OED and came away with an appreciation of the impossible size of the project, my interest in learning more was whetted.
The Meaning of Everything is more broadly about the whole enterprise, the idea of which was first proposed in 1857 and which culminated 71 years later, in 1928, with the final publication of the complete OED. It is particularly the work of James Murray who was principal editor of the effort, after two less successful efforts to get the project up and running. Murray took over in 1879 and held the position until his death in 1915.
It is a remarkable story about a remarkable project: to identify, define in all their nuances, and describe the etymology of every single word in the English language, obsolete and current. The first completed edition listed 414,825 words, and the number of pages totaled 16,000, not the 7,000 originally estimated. It is also a story about a hugely democratic effort because finding words in their various and earliest usages was the work of thousands of readers from all walks of life and accomplishments, reading practically everything every printed in English. The sheer scope of the endeavour was staggering and at times even Murray was uncertain that it could be done. It is a story of academic intrigue, the constant tension between the publishers, who wanted quick results to the market to recoup their investment, and Murray's insistence on only the highest standards, and a host of eccentric but dedicated personalities.
Some interesting bits of information: S is by far the largest letter in the alphabet, followed by C which almost equals A and B together. The smallest letter sections, in order, are X,Z,Y, Q,K,J,N,U,V. E is a moderate letter sitting around the middle of the table. The most complex word in the entire dictionary is set. The most quoted source of words is Cursor Mundi, (c.1275-1300), a religious epic of 24,000 lines in rhyming couplets in the Northumbrian dialect which purports to be a spiritual history of the world from the creation to Doomsday, divided into Seven Ages. With supplements, the OED now defines 615, 100 words and contains a total of 59,000,000 words itself.
Two interesting Canadian connections. Gwyneth, one of the daughters of James and Ada Murray, married a Canadian, Henry Logan, in 1916. Logan won the Military Cross in WWI. After the war, he taught at the University of British Columbia. He left there in 1936 to become Principal of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School on Vancouver Island. Secondly, when it was decided in the 1980s to integrate the supplements with the first edition of the dictionary, specialists from the University of Waterloo played a key role in ripping apart the entire OED and converting it to binary code.
This is a good story. Well written and well told.
I do wish he would have spent more pages on the problems of the latest electronic version, because it has to have it's own set of challenges.
One major drawback from reading this book is now I want to buy the OED.
This book is absorbing even if you have already read Simon Winchester's prequel, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, the story of one of the OED's major contributors. (The S of C is called something else in the US.)
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the OED is its democratic conception. Without an army of unpaid contributors offering their research unpaid, often for decades, the OED would not exist. One wonders not that one person could devote so much selfless effort for the love of words, but that so many such people exist.
Another fascinating aspect of the story is the sheer logistical challenge of collating and sifting so much material in the age of the inkwell. One sees the 19th century getting to grips with the corporate managerial problems of the 21st century...and not doing a bad job at all!
There's plenty of humour in the book and a sizeable scattering of interesting lexicographical titbits from the work itself. A fascinating, accessible read.
At the end, Winchester writes that "this story is not supposed to be overtly hagiographical" [p. 235], which is a good summary. At times it is difficult to discern whether he is echoing that turn of the century enthusiasm for the Forward March of Progress! or whether he himself is just really enthusiastic about the subject. Perhaps both are true. The book is certainly reverential, regardless of its supposed intent to not be overtly hagiographical.