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.