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Saturday, September 27th, 2003


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

by Simon Winchester

A review by Doug Brown

Several years ago, Simon Winchester gave us a delightful gem of a book: The Professor and the Madman, the story of two very different men who contributed to the venerable OED. After a couple of forays into geology (The Map That Changed the World and Krakatoa) Winchester is back with the larger overall tale of the OED. Editor James Murray, the "Professor" of Winchester's earlier title, is the main character here, and again he is the calm scholarly center around which colorful characters orbit. We meet Frederick Furnivall, the philandering lawyer who, despite being an instigator of the project, almost completely derailed it in its early stages; a friend of writers and artists, he was the inspiration for the Water Rat character in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Just after WWI a man named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien worked on parts of W, and had a particularly hard time with the etymology of "walrus." Dr. W. C. Minor (the "Madman") makes a brief appearance as one interesting contributor among many.

The Meaning of Everything starts off with a history of dictionaries, demonstrating that by 1860 there was still a glaring need for a good complete English dictionary. Then it moves chronologically through the process by which the work was completed, from an 1860 meeting of the Philological Society to the publication of the first edition in 1928. As editor, Murray had the enviable position of tracking down the source of words; when the question arose where Lord Tennyson got the word "balmcricket," Murray just wrote Tennyson himself and got the answer. He also wrote to Robert Browning about his use of "apparitional," though he complained Browning's reply was very confusing. In 1897, when funding on the long-overdue project looked to be cut, Murray obtained Queen Victoria's permission to dedicate the work to her, thus making it the equivalent of a royal commission (and cleverly guaranteeing future funding).

If you liked The Professor and the Madman, here's more. Fans and acquaintances of the OED will certainly enjoy this book, as will anyone who enjoys words. For instance, did you know that the combination of question mark and exclamation point is called an "interrobang"? Once more Winchester has taken a subject that might appear dry and breathed life into it.

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