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.