The Meaning of Everything

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1710

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 Taylor Coleridge. Herbert Coleridge recruited the first volunteers, drew up lists of words to be included, and (perhaps most significantly from a practical point of view in the long run) oversaw the physical construction of the first of the famous “pigeon-holes.” The structure contained an array of small slots which would hold alphabetically the various quotation slips sent in by the volunteers. In light of later developments, the original design was remarkable: It was only six square holes high and nine across, a mere fifty-four pigeon-holes. Before the project was complete, an entire building would be devoted to the slips of paper.

Coleridge died in April, 1861, and for two years the project languished without leadership. Then Dean Trench returned to take charge and handed the barely begun project to the most eccentric of its many eccentric participants, Frederick James Furnivall. An independently wealthy scholar (he inherited his money from his father, who ran a private lunatic asylum), Furnivall had a passion for sculling, a rowing sport then generally restricted to the upper classes. He was especially interested in involving attractive young women in the sport and formed clubs and associations throughout the countryside, taking an intense personal interest in his young charges. Although these associations (and several marriages “below his station”) caused some scandal in Furnivall’s private life, his major failing with the dictionary was his lack of organization and self-discipline. He was also shockingly—for a dictionary maker—careless when it came to accuracy, a trait not helped by his tendency to spend his energy in the formation of working men’s clubs, self-help groups, and other organizations.

The inevitable happened: As organization fell apart, workers departed. The volunteers continued to send in slips with words and quotations, but at a slower pace, and there were few subeditors to receive, sort, and organize them. By the mid-1870’s the project was in total disarray. Furnivall himself recognized this and began casting about for a new editor, no easy task under the best of circumstances. However, one was found.

James Augustus Henry Murray was a thirty-eight-year-old schoolteacher at the Mill Hill School in north London. He was a lowland Scot, the son of a linen draper. Largely self-taught as a young man, he had come to know Alexander Graham Bell and, through Bell’s father, had been introduced to the Philological Society. This led to his meeting with Frederick Furnivall, who quickly became his champion and advocated for Murray’s editorship of the dictionary project. Finally, in 1878 the decision was made, although it took yet another year for final, formal approval by all concerned, from the Oxford University Press to the Philological Society to Murray himself. The dictionary at last had its editor and, in 1879, a new beginning.

The rest was the work, plodding, it might be called by some, perhaps glorious plodding by objective observers, but long, hard, unremitting toil, aptly captured in Winchester’s typical chapter headings: “Battling with the Undertow,” “Pushing Through the Untrodden Forest,” and “So Heavily Goes the Chariot.” The major factors for Murray’s success were diligence and accuracy: diligence in that no English word, however obscure, long-disregarded, or unfamiliar, be omitted from the compendium; accuracy in that all aspects of the dictionary were as precise and correct as possible, in particular the citations and the definitions. Citations were checked and double-checked; even the most reliable contributors were not given free passes on their entries. The majority of definitions was written by Murray himself.

Actually, as Murray would have more likely phased it, the definitions were drawn from the words themselves and from their histories, rather than being imposed by him or the other editors as outside, somehow higher authorities. That had been the route chosen by Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster in their dictionaries and, while famous and valuable, those products were definitely not constructed along the lines of “scientific inquiry,” which was the bedrock of the OED. In the end, the OED would be the best combination of all these items, but it was especially the clear, clean, concise definitions that formed the essential backbone of the work.

This subject matter may sound like dry, old academic history that few cared about then and fewer appreciate now, but Simon Winchester breathes life into James Murray and his marvelous cast of collaborators. These include as glorious an array of eccentrics—not just English—ever collected, ranging from incarcerated insane murderers to scholars living in self-imposed exile after furious rows with their colleagues. Winchester makes every one of them come alive, if only for a few moments on a page, so that one senses the intense human drama and passion that can be stirred by something seemingly as simple as putting together a list of words and their meanings.

James Murray did not live to see the end of the project. He died on July 26, 1915. By then, several of the preliminary volumes had been published to international acclaim, and the world in general, not just the philological or academic world, knew the full range of accomplishments promised and eventually to be delivered by the OED. It was in 1928 that the first edition of the dictionary was brought to press and formally unveiled. The prime minister of England attended the formal dinner that marked the event—the accomplishment was that widely recognized.

Since then, the OED has remained in print. Supplements have appeared. New words are being collected. Older words are being updated and their quotations and citations revisited and renewed. Just as James Murray did not live to see the completion of the first edition, no living editor will see the completion of the next—for there can be no completion to a treasure trove which is chronicling something forever changing, forever growing, and expanding far faster than humans can track and fix it on paper or microfilm or computer chip: the English language. As Murray and all the rest would recognize, the goal is in the quest, not the final product.

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.

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