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.
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.
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.
(The entire section contains 2051 words.)
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