The Meaning of Everything : The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

Hardcover, 2003




Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003.


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling Simon Winchester. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. $14.95. 298pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19-881439-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. ***** The front matter of this book is highly engaging as I have spent a few minutes reading it before I could pull away to begin writing. While I was searching for a specific date when the Oxford English Dictionary was first put together, I learned about the various types of international dictionaries that have defined their times in the background. This curious conclusion stands out: “neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day – Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Jonson – had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that was first noticed by name in the late 15th century”, but only appeared as a book in 1538, “a dictionary”, edited by Sir Thomas Elyot (20). I have been thinking about problems related to this because many attribution studies question if “Shakespeare’s” authorial signature can be deduced from spellings such as “them” versus “‘em” or the utilization of strange words that “Shakespeare” invented or that do not appear in texts from this period by other authors. The reason Renaissance literature is particularly difficult for modern readers to comprehend is because of its spelling irregularities and strange varieties of meanings applied even to the same words. This irregularity persisted in part for at least a century beyond “Shakespeare’s” time as the debate was renewed by the authors in the “Daniel Defoe” circle, who argued for a language Academy like the one in France to police the language and keep it regulated and standard. They did not win this battle and there are still many irregular oddities in the English language. But the battle over the “dictionary” was won, and this tool allows modern writers to be able to figure out precisely what literary critics are saying. It is difficult to comprehend some “post-structuralism” or “formalist” theories because critics in these fields attempt to cloud the readers’ attention by the utilization of an extraordinary quantity of rare words, but if one looks up every one of them, the nonsense can be fully deciphered thanks to the precision and consistency of modern dictionaries. In other words, the study presented here of this particular dictionary really covers in part all of these sub-questions of authorship, individuality, and standardization. Since I agree the construction of this dictionary was a grand endeavor, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to commence this book’s blurb thus: “‘The greatest enterprise of its kind in history,’ was the verdict of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin in June 1928 when The Oxford English Dictionary was finally published. With its 15,490 pages and nearly two million quotations, it was indeed a monumental achievement”. This history covers the “hundreds” of “people” who achieved this task and the logical and philosophic problems they faced as they attempted “to catalogue the English language in its entirety.” The biographies covered include “Frederick Furnivall, cheerful promoter of an all-female sculling crew, to James Murray, self-educated son of a draper, who spent half a century guiding the project towards fruition.” The note ends with the mysterious question for readers to anticipate an answer to: “why Tolkien found it so hard to define ‘walrus’.” There are engaging surprises throughout. For example, Oxford University Press left the design of the dictionary to its “printers” because as was explained in The Periodical: “‘The variety of type used, the many languages involved, and the multiplication of ‘arbitraries’ have demanded technical knowledge and minute accuracy to an extent probably unequalled in any other work’” (120-1). The “Epilogue” includes some examples of complex type and design from Robert Cawdrey’s early attempt at the dictionary in the Table Alphabetical (1604) as well as from the Samuel Johnson Dictionary of the English Language (1755) (240). The latter is most commonly referred to when the “first” English dictionary is mentioned. Another revealing section describes the difficult living and working arrangements early makes of the Oxford dictionary faced: “There was only just enough room for the eleven Murrays, let alone for the assistants – eight of them, eventually – who were required for the project”. The tightness of the quarters led them to build a “new Scriptorium”, and this turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare due to the aesthetic shortfalls of the simple structure required that clashed with the more delicate architecture of the neighborhood (164). This description is explained by the picture of a monastic Murray with a long beard, in all black and amidst a room covered on all sides with sheets and books (165). Those who are interested in publishing and want to imagine the most difficult publishing project that can be attempted will find what they seek in these pages. Too many youths complain about the tediousness of reading the dictionary, but without dictionaries it would be far more tedious to figure out what other writers are trying to say. Thus, this book is essential for all public and educational libraries in case researchers or students want to gain an appreciation for the labor involved in building a language.
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Simon Winchester has previously written a detailed account of one of the foremost contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, in The surgeon of Crowthorne (OUP, 1988). He writes here that that book was 'essentially a footnote to history', and that in The meaning of everything he is ^writing the history itself. He duly covers in turn the growth of the English language from the first settlers here; early dictionaries; the establishment of the Unregistered Words Committee; the decision to produce 'an inventory of all known English words' giving 'a full-length illustrated biography of every word', its date of birth and 'a register of the ways in which it grew and evolved and changed itself and its meaning over the years'; the appointment of OED staff and establishment of premises, equipment and methods; 'the small army of volunteer readers' who sent in quotation slips, the product of 'reading and scanning and scouring all literature - all journals, magazines, papers, illuminated monastic treatises, and volumes of written and printed publicly accessible works'; the organisation of these; eventual, serial publication ('the longest sensational serial ever written', Arnold Bennett called it) and its reception; subsequent versions: supplements, micrograph, computerization, the second, 20-volume edition; the stunning statistics (414,825 headwords; 1,827,306 illustrative quotations; 15,490 pages; 227,779,589 letters and numbers; 178 miles of type, in the first full edition of 1928).
IN 1875, more than 15 years after the Philological Society of London had set out to assemble a new English dictionary, the incumbent editor, Frederick Furnivall, acknowledged that he had simply bogged down. New blood was needed. A member of the society came across a 10-year-old application for employment in the British Museum Library. The applicant was one James Murray, son of a linen draper, sometime bank clerk, now 38 years old and seeking extra work to supplement his meager earnings from the Mill Hill School, where he was teaching schoolboys while raising his own 11 children. The library hadn't hired him -- perhaps because he didn't have a college degree. We get from his application an idea of the range and extent of linguistic learning of a single, modest, semiemployed polymath in mid-19th-century Britain. Murray would be qualified, Furnivall decided, to play a part in the realization of the mind-bending new dictionary. He sent around to his confederates copies of the application letter to the library. ''I possess,'' the schoolteacher had written straightforwardly, ''that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge'' of any language ''only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius.'' . . .

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
After doing nigh on 400 of these LibraryThing reviews (I’m gunning for you, bluetyson!), I’m starting to recognize a few of the warning signs that a book is gonna be silly tripe. “Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times”, unfortunately, is one (what is up with these people and the books they make bestsellers? Why can’t they just stick to TV?). Being about language and written by a non-academic, twice as unfortunately, is another (Mark Liberman is right:linguists are doing a bad, bad job inculcating a basic knowledge of the discipline in the general public, similar to what they have in chemistry, for example, and we need a required course in linguistics at the high school level, or popular books about language are going to remain the province of bullshit merchants like Bill Bryson).

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.
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LibraryThing member bell7
This fairly slim volume packs in tons of information about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, a massive undertaking begun in the 1850s, the first edition of which was not completed until 1928, and under revision for a 3rd edition today. Though sometimes getting bogged down in details, this is an overall fascinating account of the dictionary, from the recognition of a need for one to the ongoing revisions necessary as the English language continues to change.

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.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Simon Winchester is kind of like a healthy, low-carbohydrate snack. I mean it’s educational and all so its not bad for you, but it’s still mind candy. Winchester writes with (sometimes fawning) enthusiasm and loves to add literary detail wherever and whenever he can. It’s no wonder one can’t help falling in love with the subject matter. This book tales the epic and dramatic story (in Winchester’s language) of the Oxford English Dictionary from conception to … well it’s never really been completed, but the book tells the story of the first edition in detail and brings it up to present day in the epilogue. Now I want to read books and find words to submit to the OED myself.… (more)
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Just makes me want to own my own edition of the OED. Like right now. Lovely Simon Winchester!
LibraryThing member xicanti
All too often, nonfiction with an interesting premise gets bogged down when the author takes a dry, overly scholarly approach. I'm pleased to report that that isn't at all the case here. Though Winchester's take is decidedly scholarly, he imbues his writing with such obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter that the book is a pure delight to read. I enjoyed every page and found myself rushing to my dictionary as soon as I was done, eager to examine just how it was put together.… (more)
LibraryThing member John
I received The Meaning of Everything for Christmas, and at first I thought it was another version of Winchester's book, The Professor and the Madman (reviewed separately), but it is not. In fact, I think the former grew out of the latter. The two overlap: the latter is about the amazing contributions made to the formation of the OED by one W.C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran and surgeon who killed a man in London in a fit of paranoid schizophrenia and was sentenced indefinitely to the Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane. For almost 30 years, from 1881 until he was released to return to the USA in 1910, Minor was a major contributor to the etymology and meaning of words; he and James Murray, chief editor, became friends and it was Murray who prevailed upon Winston Churchill to approve the release of Minor to the care of his brother.

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.
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LibraryThing member LMHTWB
This is the story of The Oxford English Dictionary and how it came to be. Simon Winchester does a good job at telling the story -- and it is a story, as opposed to a history. He includes some footnotes, but it would never be confused with an in-depth history of the OED. The focus is on the early years, when the project was getting started, and not the newest edition, including the electronic version.

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.
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LibraryThing member bolero
interesting account of the 70 year making of the monumental OED, the methodology, struggles, editors, volunteers. Recommended.
LibraryThing member urduha
You really have to be into the English language and the history thereof to be entertained by this, which I'm not. Oh well, it was okay, well written, just not that interesting to me.
LibraryThing member GeekGoddess
A very readable book on the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, how it came to be, and the main characters in the development of the book, including the Civil War surgeon W. C. Minor, who was a prisoner in England's Bedlam Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
LibraryThing member miketroll
The epic history of the creation of the vast Oxford English Dictionary.

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!
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LibraryThing member audramelissa
While it appears that the networks of the Web have lead to revolutionary progressions of information sharing, we must recognize the contributions of people who have been a part of endeavors without the current technologies. Winchester traces the long history of Oxford English Dictionary and the contributive efforts of volunteer readers in The Meaning of Everything. Without monetary gains, volunteers sent in their slips of illustrative uses of words to the Scriptorium. Here was a network, though inhibited by the slow pace at the time of publishing and the post, which succeeded because most involved, shared a desire to contribute.… (more)
LibraryThing member tikitu-reviews
Light but fun. Lots of amusing anecdotes, but nothing that I felt drawn to investigating further. Nicely written, but nothing special.
LibraryThing member JBD1
One of Winchester's best.
LibraryThing member catalogthis
Read this for library school. Actually enjoyed it.
LibraryThing member satyridae
Fascinating story behind my dream dictionary. The labor it took to create the OED out of whole cloth took multiple lifetimes. This book, while thorough and enjoyable, still leaves much untold. I want more.
LibraryThing member Tpoi
The OED is an incredible achievement and Winchester lays out the history well. Especially elucidating are the explanations and analysis of the volunteer effort which is the backbone of the OED, an army of amateurs volunteers around the globe who spent an unspeakable amount of time researching the history of common words as well as such words as depone, erinaceous and floccinaucinihilipilification. I think it is this emphasis on etymology, on historical and contextual use, which is especially important; there is no official Academy of English language, no linguistic metropole or arbitrator, and so therefore all meaning is to be found in situ (i.e., descriptive rather prescriptive).… (more)
LibraryThing member Griff
A great companion piece to The Professor and the Madman, providing a further glimpse into the history and people that brought to fruition the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester has a way of making history vital - bringing the human dimension to the fore. This book makes one wish time was available to be a volunteer reader, providing illustrative quotations which bring to life the history and evolution of words in the English language. It is too much to ask that some day I might own a copy of the multi-volume lexicography, but even if I did, would I have time to fully relish the bounty within?… (more)
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
I hate to admit this, but I didn't care for The Meaning of Everything. Okay, while I'm being honest I'll go for broke - I didn't get beyond page 19. There. I said it. I was bored. As a person deeply connected to reading you would think I would be intimate with words, especially the origin of words. I mean, words form sentences and sentences form paragraphs and paragraphs form pages and pages fill books, right? And books are what it's all about, right? No. I guess the bottom line is I don't care about where the word came from. The word, when it stands alone, is boring. How sad is that? I need words strung together into sentences. Those sentences need to be woven together to ultimately make a story interesting. This, however, was not.… (more)
LibraryThing member jagreene
The Oxford English Dictionary is the alpha and omega of the english langauge. But few people know it's amazing history. This books traces the development of the OED from its first inception to the printing of the first volume. The Victoian Age is full of marvelous charachters and people of vision and the movers behind the OED were no exception. This book is entertaining and informative.… (more)
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Simon Winchester has done a great job of drawing out the human stories behind the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary: the problems getting the project of the ground, the personal feuds, the huge amount of effort involved in keeping it going and in bringing it to completion.

There's plenty of humour in the book and a sizeable scattering of interesting lexicographical titbits from the work itself. A fascinating, accessible read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nancynova
from the Things bookbox last round. I liked this better than The Professor and the Madman. I click on the OED all the time on my kindle and never noticed the nuances in the descriptions. Great book
LibraryThing member bexaplex
The Meaning of Everything covers the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, from the proposal in 1857 to the Philological Society, to the publication of the first fascicle in 1884, to the last volume of the original edition in 1928, with an epilogue touching on the updates that the OED was working on when the book was published, in 2003. There were many people who worked on the dictionary, so there are many small biographies tucked into the main story. Winchester scatters humorous anecdotes around in footnotes (e.g. "He was powerfully attracted to rough, strong, dirty women, and he married his own servant, Hannah Cullick, delighting in her covering herself with dirt and soot, as, perfectly willingly, she cleaned the household chimneys entirely naked." [p. 63]) and often refers to people by their eccentricities, rather than their role with the dictionary (an early assistant turns out to be a kleptomaniac, which Winchester mentions several times).

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.
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LibraryThing member quiBee
A bit slow to start when it was going over the history of English (read it many times elsewhere) but then a fascinating story about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the larger than life characters who were involved in its creation.
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
While I didn't find "The Meaning of Everything" as fascinating as Simon Winchester's earlier work, "The Professor and the Madman" which covered a fraction of the scope of this book, it is a wonderful history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The incredible persistence and high standards of the many who worked on the original dictionary over 70 years is an object lesson in scholarship.… (more)



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