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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

by

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary Cover

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

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, Winchester first serves up a lightning 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 for story-telling to the making of 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 a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes 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 that anticipated — and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found 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 Fitzedward 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 dauntingly ambitious project — a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.

Review:

"Teeming with knowledge and alive with insights. Winchester handles humor and awe with modesty and cunning. His devotion to the story is the more eloquent for the cool-handedness of its telling. His prose is supremely readable, admirable in its lucid handling of lexicographical mire." William F. Buckley, New York Times Book Review

Review:

"The extraordinary story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a subject perfectly suited to Winchester's magpie mind....Winchester's account is an affectionate and frankly partisan study of the making of a great dictionary. It is also an offbeat portrait of an extraordinary society." Robert McCrumm, Los Angeles Times

Review:

"Devastatingly brilliant....Fascinating, witty, extremely well-written....Winchester makes words exciting. He obviously loves them." The Boston Globe

Review:

"Winchester has no peer at illuminating massive and complex endeavors through the quirks and foibles of the brilliant and powerful personalities who carry them out." Chicago Sun Times

Review:

"A magnificent account, swift and compelling, of obsession, scholarship, and ultimately, philanthropy of the first magnitude." Kirkus Review (starred review)

Review:

"An inspired story of conflict, madness, genius, and inspiration so amusing that at times it reads like fiction — but it isn't." Library Journal (starred review)

Review:

"Full of engaging characters and incidents." Wall Street Journal

Review:

"Entrancing....An engaging read...resonates with all the chauvinism and misgiving, the self-congratulation and self-doubt that emerge when we think about our language." Chicago Tribune

Review:

"Fascinatingly told. Winchester brings to life the trials and tribulations of creating the OED, particularly the never-dull personalities of those who were involved. Moreover, he delightfully, admiringly gives us an appreciation of the wonderfully adaptive, ever-expanding English language." Forbes Magazine

Synopsis:

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a remarkable achievement, the story of which has been aching to be told. Who better to take on the challenge than the talented story-teller Simon Winchester? With his characteristic gift for bringing history alive, in The Meaning of Everything Simon Winchester charts the fascinating life of the OED leading up to the appointment of the first editor, James Murray, in 1879, through to the OED's triumphant publication in 1928 and beyond. The Meaning of Everything is a must for anyone with an interest in language and words.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 251-253) and index.

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the author of the bestsellers The Map That Changed the World, The Madman and the Professor, and Krakatoa. He was a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and The Sunday Times and was based in Belfast, New Delhi, New York, London and Hong Kong. Winchester has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He lives in Massachusetts, New York, and the Western Isles of Scotland.

Table of Contents

Prologue

1. Taking the Measure of it All

2. The Construction of the Pigeonholes

3. The General Officer Commanding

4. Battling the Undertow

5. Pushing through the Untrodden Forest

6. So Heavily Goes the Chariot

7. The Hermit and the Murderer - and Hereward Thimbleby Price

8. From Take to Turndown - and then, Triumphal Valediction

Epilogue

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

Still Riding, November 14, 2014 (view all comments by Still Riding)
I am amazed at how long it took to publish the complete Oxford English Dictionary. After reading this book it is clear that there were some very persistent folks trying to collect the words, find them in written form somewhere, define them, and then note their origins. This huge endeavor turned out to be the product of all sorts of people from all walks of life, and quite a few of these people were characters or difficult or even incarcerated.

It is a good read... but I like even more the small book, The Professor and the Madman, by the same author. That book captures the reader instantly and there is a humanity to the strange relationship that I found captivating.

Good non-fiction books!
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
Shoshana, June 25, 2007 (view all comments by Shoshana)
A pleasing history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by the author of the related The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, also a delightful read. It used to be that one could get a copy of the Compact OED by joining a book club, and used copies were easy to find as well. When I went to college, I schlepped my Compact OED to school, home, and to school again each year. I still enjoy reading dictionaries (whether monolingual or translating) and thesauri about as much as I enjoy reading books with plots or narratives, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed the work of the Unregistered Words Committee (which, alas, quickly found its task subsumed in the grander and more ambitious project the OED soon became).

Winchester is a fine writer with an enjoyably large vocabulary. This book has somewhat uneven pacing, with some chapters lagging a bit while others move quickly. The conclusion seemed somewhat rushed; I'd have liked more discussion of the OED's reception when the series was finally complete. The sections on internal disputes, lexicographic standards, and the volunteers who provided illustrative quotations are all very pleasant reading.

A few nitpicks:

Page 8: Though borrowed through Latin, at least three on his list of "Latin-originated words" (idol, martyr, psalm) are actually Greek-originated words.

Page 22: "sacerdotall" is not "now mercifully gone" but alive and well and spelled "sacerdotal."

Though the promotional material says that "Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making ? how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was," this is somewhat misleading, as Winchester disappointingly references the same datum--that "marzipan" was difficult--but does not tell us why.

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(5 of 9 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780198607021
Subtitle:
The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
Author:
Winchester, Simon
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Location:
New York
Subject:
Great britain
Subject:
History, World | British | 19th C
Subject:
English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
Copyright:
Edition Number:
4
Edition Description:
Includes bibliographical references (p. 269-271)
Series Volume:
16
Publication Date:
September 2003
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
5.300 x 7.900 in 0.488 lb

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Related Subjects

» Humanities » Literary Criticism » General
» Reference » Books on Books

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary Used Hardcover
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Product details 256 pages Oxford University Press - English 9780198607021 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Teeming with knowledge and alive with insights. Winchester handles humor and awe with modesty and cunning. His devotion to the story is the more eloquent for the cool-handedness of its telling. His prose is supremely readable, admirable in its lucid handling of lexicographical mire." William F. Buckley, New York Times Book Review
"Review" by , "The extraordinary story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a subject perfectly suited to Winchester's magpie mind....Winchester's account is an affectionate and frankly partisan study of the making of a great dictionary. It is also an offbeat portrait of an extraordinary society." Robert McCrumm, Los Angeles Times
"Review" by , "Devastatingly brilliant....Fascinating, witty, extremely well-written....Winchester makes words exciting. He obviously loves them." The Boston Globe
"Review" by , "Winchester has no peer at illuminating massive and complex endeavors through the quirks and foibles of the brilliant and powerful personalities who carry them out." Chicago Sun Times
"Review" by , "A magnificent account, swift and compelling, of obsession, scholarship, and ultimately, philanthropy of the first magnitude." Kirkus Review (starred review)
"Review" by , "An inspired story of conflict, madness, genius, and inspiration so amusing that at times it reads like fiction — but it isn't." Library Journal (starred review)
"Review" by , "Full of engaging characters and incidents." Wall Street Journal
"Review" by , "Entrancing....An engaging read...resonates with all the chauvinism and misgiving, the self-congratulation and self-doubt that emerge when we think about our language." Chicago Tribune
"Review" by , "Fascinatingly told. Winchester brings to life the trials and tribulations of creating the OED, particularly the never-dull personalities of those who were involved. Moreover, he delightfully, admiringly gives us an appreciation of the wonderfully adaptive, ever-expanding English language." Forbes Magazine
"Synopsis" by , The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a remarkable achievement, the story of which has been aching to be told. Who better to take on the challenge than the talented story-teller Simon Winchester? With his characteristic gift for bringing history alive, in The Meaning of Everything Simon Winchester charts the fascinating life of the OED leading up to the appointment of the first editor, James Murray, in 1879, through to the OED's triumphant publication in 1928 and beyond. The Meaning of Everything is a must for anyone with an interest in language and words.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 251-253) and index.

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