Winchester: The Meaning of Everything

February 21, 2012

The Meaning of Everything
The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester
(Oxford, 2003)
288 p.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fan” in this way:

A fanatic; in mod.E. (orig. U.S.): a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.

As such — and especially in that last sense — it is fair to say that I am a “fan” of the Oxford English Dictionary. I consult it regularly, and often find myself lost in its fascinating etymologies. Most of all, I just like the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary: a book that has all the answers. In those pages, every word in the language has been described, and its history given, and there is something wonderful about that.

Of course, the OED itself has a history, and that is the subject of this book by Simon Winchester. He tells the story of how it came to be started, and how, despite the almost overwhelming magnitude of the task, it was slowly and steadily conquered by the dedication of thousands of volunteers and a small group of talented editors.

The idea of the OED was born in the British Philological Society in 1857. That Society resolved to publish a comprehensive dictionary of the language, a task that had, at that time, not been attempted for any living language. It was to be called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The idea, taking one side in a long-standing lexicographic dispute, was that the dictionary should be descriptive of the ways in which English words are actually used, rather than prescriptive of how they should be used, and the various usages were to be illustrated by quotations from works of English literature. The members of the Philological Society assumed it would take a few years to complete. Nobody, in those early days, had any idea how immense the job would turn out to be.

The gathering of quotations was immediately recognized as too difficult for any small group to complete, so it was decided to solicit the help of the reading public. People were encouraged to read books — especially old books, in order to cast a net into the waters of obsolete words and usages — and, when an interesting word was encountered, to write it down, with the sentence in which it appeared, and send it to the editors. Thousands answered the summons, and the words began to pile up. Unfortunately, the first few editors of the dictionary failed to get the project off the ground, and several decades passed without anything being published.

It was not until 1879, when James Murray was named editor, that the project really took off. Murray, a draper’s son without a university degree, was a brilliant philologist, and he had the organizational talent that the dictionary needed. Under his editorship, which lasted until his death in 1915, the dictionary went from being the disorganized dream of a group of word-enthusiasts to being praised as one of the greatest monuments of the English language, and one of the great lexicographic achievements of history. And so it remains today. The success of the dictionary is principally due to James Murray’s dedication and talent.

The dictionary — the first edition of the dictionary — was not completed until 1928, nearly 70 years after its inception. The last word to be completed was wyzen. (The volume containing words beginning with X, Y, and Z had been completed some years earlier. W words, on the other hand, none of which have Greek or Latin roots, were among the most difficult to complete.) In the end, the dictionary contained over 410000 words, illustrated by over 1.8 million quotations.

The word with the longest entry in the dictionary is, to my surprise, set, with over 400 distinguished usages.

Winchester’s book has given me a new appreciation for those who laboured to produce this great dictionary, and therefore, in a real way, it has increased my admiration for the dictionary itself.


[A Johnsonian anecdote]

Boswell: What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?

Johnson: Hmmm.

Boswell: A Dissenter?

Johnson: Hmph!

Boswell: A Scotsman?

Johnson: Sir —

Boswell: And that the University of Oxford would publish it?

Johnson: Sir, in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.

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