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THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING by Simon Winchester Kirkus Star


The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-19-860702-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

The conception, gestation, and birth of the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary.

Winchester (Krakatoa, p. 220, etc.) returns to territory he first excavated in The Professor and the Madman (1998), which told the stories of OED editor James Murray and his brilliant assistant, William Chester Minor, incarcerated for murder and madness. Here, the author deals only briefly with Minor near the end and focuses instead on the brilliant, dedicated, even obsessed men and women who created the dictionary despite war and illness, insanity and insolvency, and the sometimes vicious politics of publishing and scholarship. Winchester begins in 1928 as the final pages were published of a work that began with the volume A to Ant in 1884. Many notable contributors never lived to see the completed dictionary, but many others attended the grand celebratory dinner, among them J.R.R. Tolkien, who in 1919 had worked on the project and was remembered for his struggles with the difficult word “walrus.” (Later, he would help the OED define “hobbit.”) Winchester pauses for a few chapters to remind us of the story of the English language—remember those pesky Angles, Saxons and Jutes?—and to sketch the history of dictionaries. By the third chapter, we meet the tale’s giant: James Murray, who signed on as editor in 1879 and died in 1915 while working on T. Winchester also profiles gadflies Benjamin Jowett, and Philip Lyttelton Gell, who harried the deliberate and meticulous Murray. Most interesting, of course, are the flotsam and jetsam that the author displays. “Zyxt” is the final word in the dictionary; “black” took three months of nonstop work; the first installment sold for 12 shillings and 6 pence; editor Henry Bradley could read a book upside down; the next published edition may run to 40 volumes.

A magnificent account, swift and compelling, of obsession, scholarship, and, ultimately, philanthropy of the first magnitude. (30 b&w illustrations, not seen)