The Story ofthe Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester
How does one write a dictionary? And not just any dictionary, but a comprehensive book designed to "present a complete inventory of the language". The Meaning ofEverything (MOE) is the story of the project to create the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The history of the effort and the stories of the people involved in this monumental task are well told in the narrative non-fiction of author Simon Winchester. MOE is a book which will appeal to those fascinated by history, but should be of interest to those of us in Talossa who love the more technical sides of language, etymology and lexicography.
Work (wûrk) 1. n. a literary or musical composition
MOE starts with a brief yet illuminating look at the evolutionary history of the English language. Next is a fascinating survey of some pre-OED dictionaries, their editors and their problems. Next we meet the Victorian-era personalities in Britain's Philological Society. We learn how Dean Trench's monograph On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries laid the plan and method for what became the OED.
The first edition of the OED defined 41 4,825 words, making "twelve mighty tombstone-sized volumes" totaling 1 5,490 pages that required 1 78 miles of hand-set single-spaced type. Winchester mines the initial volumes to help us understand:
How the word set was so much more difficult than is, how unexpectedly tricky marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated, or that C was so much more complex than D, and how the compilation of J turned into a lexicographic bloodbath. (p.1 87)
Work 2. n. efort expended on a taskWinchester's skill is sharing the huge effort that went into creating the OED, as well as the methodology for making Dean Trench's concepts into printed pages. The Philological Society started the OED project on 1 2 May 1 860, thinking it would take about ten years. The final volume was published 68 years and three weeks later. It took 23 years for the first pages to be printed. None of those who started the OED lived to see the final product.
Workers (wûr ́kûr) 2. n. pl. Persons who perform labor for a living.
MOE provides a vivid look at the many people who made the OED, especially the staff. Winchester's descriptive vignettes of the editors, assistants, sorters and the delegates of the Philological Society breathe life into what could have been dry prose.
Winchester shares the story of John, a WWI soldier hired in 1919. The editors assigned John to the thankless task of working on W and tricky words like walnut, wampum and walrus. Later, John wrote that during his time at OED, he, "learned more... than in any other period in my life." We know John as J.R.R. Tolkien. (p.206)
The hero of MOE is Scotsman James Murray, the third editor who saved the project from chaos, established a working methodology and delivered the long-awaited first pages. Murray is pictured on the cover, working in the Scriptorium surrounded by his staff. Much of the book follows Murray's struggles to maintain a high level of quality as the project scope and staff grew larger.
Workers 3. n. pl. Persons engaged in a particular field, activity, or cause
One of the keys to the depth of the OED is the 1,827,306 illustrative quotations that document the history of the keywords. Curiously, almost all of these citations were provided by volunteer readers from around the globe. MOE tells the story of this Victorian "crowdsourcing" effort, and highlights some of the people involved in this effort to comb through eight centuries of English literature.
In MOE we learn about the invaluable contribution of the English spinsters Edith and E.P. Thompson, who not only provided 1 5,000 quotations to Volume I, but were later asked to sub-edit letter C. Many Americans also contributed. Winchester highlights two fascinating stories of how recluse Fitzedward Hall and Dr. W.C. Minor made major contributions to the OED. The latter was assumed to be on the staff of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Insane, but later, a surprised Murray discovered that Minor was an inmate.
Conclusion (Middle English, from Latin conclusion-, conclusio, from concludere)
MOE tells the story behind the OED, an icon of English literature. It is a fast and engaging read, told with good humour and an eye to the personalities behind a large project. Winchester provides an engaging and interesting view on a subject that, if handled differently, could have been deadly dull. MOE is a great idea for any Talossan reading list.