A captivating celebration of a life among words.



A witty memoir from a dictionary editor who insists he is not a “word lover.”

Simpson, former chief editor of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, makes his literary debut with a delightful chronicle of his 40-year career among fellow lexicographers as the dictionary went through the long, painstaking processes of updating, revising, and digitizing its gargantuan number of entries. Unassuming, sly, and often very funny, the author paints an affectionate portrait of the rarefied culture of the OED when he joined the staff in 1976: an effort by the chief editor to incorporate the vocabulary of America’s police and CB truckers, for example, elicited “some eyebrows raised in the dictionary office (Oxford’s own code for utter disbelief, and right up there with the imperceptibly flaring nostrils).” Every afternoon, editors met for “dictionary tea-time,” a holdover from “the sedate environment” of the 19th century. Simpson’s talents—which he reveals with disarming modesty—as a word sleuth and project manager led to promotions along the way. He became chief editor during the OED’s adventuresome transition to the internet, a huge step for the staff and the dictionary’s overseer and funder, the University of Oxford Press. The author deftly characterizes the politics and personalities—including three administrators nicknamed the Admiral, the Shark, and the Colonel—who sometimes clashed, gently and decorously, during his career. In addition to chronicling the revision processes, Simpson offers lively histories for words that are quirky (inkling, juggernaut), trendy (selfie), seemingly self-evident (inferno, blueprint), and oddly problematic (same, bird-watching). Each history, Simpson says, reflects “a patterning in the language over the centuries that mirrors and comments on the emergence of peoples and nations in different eras.” The author reveals personal details, as well, especially the “sadness and helplessness” that he and his wife felt when they realized that their second daughter was afflicted with a profound developmental disability, unable to communicate with words. “Compared to this,” he writes, “the dictionary work was easy.”

A captivating celebration of a life among words.

Pub Date: Oct. 25, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-06069-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: July 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

Did you like this book?

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?