The Meaning of Everything

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Little, on the face of it, seems as unremarkable, even as dull, as compiling a dictionary: you gather the words of a language, arrange them in alphabetical order, attach the proper definitions and you are done. Even adding the histories, or etymologies, of words to give a sense of their growth and change over time seems a relatively minor undertaking—until it is actually undertaken. Such a common view of dictionary making is quickly dispelled on first glance into Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Actually, the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary labored under no misapprehension that theirs would be an easy task, although they did seriously underestimate the time and trouble it would take to gather in all the known words of the English language with appropriate quotations. They knew from the start this would be a word book like no other; their only problem was that they underestimated the enormous variety and flexibility of English and its stubborn refusal to be easily tamed by even the most dedicated of editors.

And dedicated the editors were, from Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet) to James Augustus Henry Murray, the self-taught master who spent over half a century wrestling the project to within completion. Tributes to British scholarship and eccentricity, they devoted their time to a cause which at times seemed less than hopeless but which now is an undisputed gem of modern linguistic scholarship. Along the way their trials, tribulations, mishaps, and misadventures provide Winchester with enough material to keep the fascinating story moving ahead at a brisk, even startling pace. In the end, it turns out that the making of dictionaries is far from a dull thing indeed—especially the making of the greatest dictionary of them all.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 1 (September 1, 2003): 4-5.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 15 (August 1, 2003): 1010.

Library Journal 128, no. 18 (November 1, 2003): 84.

New Statesman 132, no. 4668 (December 15, 2003): 110-111.

The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 2003, p. 13-14.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 28 (July 14, 2003): 66.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 2003, p. 28.

Wilson Quarterly 27, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 120.

The Meaning of Everything

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

As might be anticipated, even expected, the history of the Oxford English Dictionary is by no means a straightforward or simple story. The task of compiling the work took much longer than was originally expected: It took the better part of a century under a variety of brilliant but eccentric editors, exasperated its publishers and sponsors, and in the end, proved a work of scholarship so new in concept yet so impressive in magnitude that it remains a guidepost for linguistic efforts as well as for scientific investigations of a similar nature. This is the fascinating story, with its novelistic cast of characters, that Simon Winchester has captured so well in The Meaning of Everything, his short but incisive history of the dictionary (known as OED for short the world over).

Winchester begins with an invaluable survey of the growth and development of the English language and what sets its apart from other tongues: chiefly, its power to grow, especially in its ability to assimilate new words, phrases, constructions, and meanings from other languages with which it comes into contact. At the same time, English is an unconsciously but powerfully imperialistic language, superseding native languages even though it often may be more complex and difficult to use. By the mid-nineteenth century, the combination of these two factors, along with Great Britain’s exploration and colonization, had made English the preeminent language on Earth. Clearly, the time had come to codify this powerful force into a systematic, scientific dictionary.

Actually, the immediate origins of the OED were a bit more modest. Instead of creating an entirely new dictionary, much less a dictionary on entirely new principles, The Philological Society, a group of like-minded language enthusiasts, many of them learned amateurs, had long been debating faults in existing English dictionaries. Even the most respected and famous of dictionaries, including Dr. Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking volume, left much to be desired. Words had been left out. Words were not properly recorded or defined. There was an overall lack of system to all the existing dictionaries, which cried out for revision. To address these problems the Philological Society formed a committee to report on “Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries.”

The report, delivered by the dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench, called for an entirely new dictionary based on historical principles, which would include every word in English possible to capture and record, along with every possible variant in meaning and spelling. Further, these words would be backed up by citations—quotations—from the earliest known publications of each word that could be found. Perhaps the most brilliant stroke of the entire plan was that the English speakers themselves would be asked to provide the words, the examples, the citations. Literally thousands of contributors from across the world (as English had become a global language, with speakers and readers on literally every continent) would supply the raw material for the dictionary. It would then be up to the editorial staff to sort the words, organize them, select the most relevant quotations, and write the short yet complete definitions which would be essential to the users of the dictionary as they traced how words in English changed over time. It seemed perhaps a daunting task, but, as Winchester points out, during the heyday of imperial splendor it was considered by its undertakers to be as much of a responsibility as an opportunity.

It is worth pausing to note that the driving force behind this radical shift in plan was an Anglican churchman. This indicates the breadth and eclectic nature not only of the Philological Society but also of Great Britain during this period, a time of supreme self-confidence, especially among men of learning and leisured wealth. It was an opportunity that began well, then quickly began to fall apart before enduring a troubled middle period and then finding its true leadership in a most unlikely source.

The first editor was young, only twenty-seven years old: Herbert Coleridge, a grandson of the famous poet Samuel...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)