Book Review: The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has been making something of a career of late writing books about the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1998 he wrote The Professor and the Madman (British title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne) and has now penned The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. This latest is something of an unofficial history of the OED. The book was suggested to Winchester by the editors at Oxford University Press and is based on the research Winchester conducted for his 1998 book.

While the story of the OED is not one of high drama or cracking adventure, The Meaning of Everything is a book of great interest to anyone interested in words and lexicography. The creation of the OED was one of the monumental achievements of the Victorian age. (Although it was not completed until 1928, the OED is essentially a Victorian work.) It is also a story of bureaucratic and academic infighting and about how books get published.

The monumental achievement of this dictionary is demonstrated by some simple statistics. The first edition of the dictionary took over 70 years to complete. The idea of a comprehensive dictionary of the English language was first put forward in 1857 and the first edition was not completed until 1928. (And with supplements, a second edition, and with the beginning of a third, the work has never stopped.) The first edition is 15,490 pages long in twelve volumes. It contains 414,825 headwords and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. At the height of the project, readers were submitting quotations at a rate of 1,000 per day. The cataloging of the English language was truly a massive task and one done without automation or modern information processing tools.

The central figure in the creation of the OED is James Murray, the editor from 1879 until his death in 1915. Murray was the perfect man for the job of compiling this dictionary from scratch—and it was essentially from scratch, the previous two editors, Herbert Coleridge, tubercular grandson of the poet, and Frederick Furnivall, an excellent scholar who let his passion for women distract him from the work at hand, had accomplished little. Murray combined academic brilliance with the drive, vision, and organizational skills of a modern-day entrepreneur.

Murray set the academic standard and shepherded the fledgling work through the bureaucracy of Oxford University Press, juggling the competing goals of maintaining excellence with the demands to publish quickly. When Murray took charge in 1879, it was estimated that the dictionary would run some 7,000 pages, take another ten years to complete, and cost a total of £9,000. It would turn out to take over twice that number of pages, take 49 years to complete, and cost over £300,000. The publishers were expecting 704 completed pages per year, almost two per day, an average of over 33 words per day. This was a dizzying pace, especially when considering that one word, black, took Murray’s chief assistant over three months to complete.

The editor was also responsible for organizing the efforts of a small army of volunteer readers who scoured the corpus of English literature to find uses of specific words. One chapter of the book focuses on two of the more interesting, the hermit Fitzedward Hall who worked in solitude, refusing all visitors, including Murray himself, and W.C. Minor, the surgeon housed in a home for the criminally insane who was the subject of Winchester’s earlier book.

Another of Murray’s arduous tasks was cleaning up the mess left him by the previous editors. Furnivall in particular had distributed the quotation slips collected to date to various sub-editors around the world and recovering these proved a major task. The entirety of the letter H was missing, later found in a villa in Tuscany. The quotations for words beginning with Pa were eventually found in an Irish stable. And the sub-editor for the letter O simply refused to return the material; eventually, Murray convinced him.

Winchester’s treatment of the subject is excellent. The book is readable and Winchester deftly addresses the bureaucratic aspects of publishing such a mammoth work without being overwhelmed by details and minutiae.

Of the books few faults, there are two of note. The first is that the book reads like a hagiography of Murray. This is somewhat understandable as Murray was clearly brilliant, an organizer par excellence, and a man without personal vices. But no one is as saintly as Murray is portrayed in the book. We are told he is a family man (with eleven children, no less) but we learn next to nothing about his wife or his children, except for the work they did assisting him. A bit more humanity in the portrayal would make The Meaning of Everything more interesting.

The second fault is that the book largely ignores the scholarly processes underlying the dictionary. Winchester does a fine job describing the discipline of writing definitions, but ignores etymology and pronunciation. How did Murray and the other editors determine the origins of words? How did they determine the pronunciations? One will not learn these answers by reading this book. Still, these are minor faults when placed in perspective.

Winchester has produced an excellent history of a major academic achievement—in scale the Victorian equivalent of cracking the human genome. Readable, entertaining, and insightful, The Meaning of Everything is a book that deserves a place on the bookshelves of any word lover.

Hardcover; 260 pages; Oxford University Press; October 2003; ISBN: 0-19-860702-4; $25.00

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