The Story of the Oxford English dictionary

From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English Language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Writing with marvelous brio, Simon Winchester, first serves up a lightening history of the English Language-------“so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy----and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from “the irredeemably famous “ Samuel Johnson to the “short, pale, smug, and boastful” schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster.

He then turns his unmatched talent or storytelling to the making if this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly described the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making----how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated----and how bondmaid was let out completely, its slips fount lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press.

We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium----the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it—and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzeward Hall, a bitter hermit, obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption

The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester’s supple, vigorous prose illuminates this daunting ambitious project-----a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world’s unrivaled uber-dictionary.


Editor’s Note: Interesting topics, from this most fascinating of books, have been selected at random to peak your curiosity even further. Mr. Winchester has taken a rather dull subject and made it most interesting reading.

Of those settlers about whose language we know something, the Celts----who came from gloomy forests and swamps in the upper valleys of the Danube----are generally counted as the first. They swarmed westward across Europe some time during the Bronze Age; about 500 years before the birth of Christ.........(pg. 2.)

William Shakespeare, or example, had no access to a dictionary during most of his writing career-----certainly from 1580, when he first began, it was a quarter of a century before any volume might appear in which he could look up something. (pg.19)

I believe that the scheme is now firmly established ..... and I confidently expect ... that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number to the world. Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of my contributors, I shall not hesitate to name an earlier period.

(Herbert Coleridge, first Editor of the

                                                   The New English Dictionary, 30 May, 1860) pg.46

To, reiterate: Coleridge saw as his principal job the discovery of as many historically recorded uses as he and his volunteers could find of each of the words destined for the Dictionary; and from the comparisons he made of how each word had been used over time, he would world out which meanings were which, and arrange his dictionary accordingly (pg. 56)

......the Reverend George Wheelwright, suggested, in a briskly worded pamphlet, that Furnivall make up his mind about the future of the scheme. He should, the cleric said, promptly find a new editor, assure everyone they were not on “a Fools chace which would only in a general fiasco”, and by so doing bring to and end ‘the intolerable suspense under which we all groan’, Wheelwright had spent ten years of his lie dedicated to the Dictionary; he was not about to see it fail without, someone, somewhere, making an effort to save it. (pg. 69)

John Murray then turned out to be furious with Furnivall too------he had demanded they repay an advance of 600 pounds the Society had opaid at the time of the very first negotiations. So they were non-starters too. The only serious and suitable publishing house that had not given an absolute definitive “no” for an answer, therefore, was Oxford. (pg. 88)

T here are two beginnings to every year, says an old Irish proverb.

he Oxford English dictionary had the first of its beginnings in 1861.

And now, with James Murray’s formal appointment in 1879 as editor, it was having its second almost 20 .years later. But it was not quite so simple, getting matters under way again, after so long a period of time. (pg. 97)

I think it was God’s will. In times of faith, I am sure of it. I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it imposed upon me----not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science & many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary....So I work on with a firm belief (at most times) that I am doing what God has fitted me for, & so made my duty; & a hope that He will strengthen me to see the end of it......But I a  m anly an instrument, only the means that He has provided, & there is no credit due to me, except that of tgrying to do my duty; Deo soli gloria.

(Letter rom James Murray to the politician Lord Bryce.)

15 December 1903

Murray was sustained ot the rest of his

life by an illusion that time, however

quickly it ran out, was on his side. For

a moment in history the language had

paused and come to rest. It could be

seized and captured or ever.

(Peter Sutcliffe, 1978. The Oxford

University Press; An Informal History)

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