Words words words: The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP 2003)

I first stumbled on the OED in the Fisher Library at Sydney University roughly 40 years ago. I doubt if I looked up more than two or three words in it, but I did get a whiff of what a miraculous piece of work it is, with its long columns of quotations illustrating how the meanings of every word changed and developed with the passage of time. A couple of years later I read Raymond Williams’s Keywords (a brilliant guide for anyone who wants to chart a path through the spin of political discourse), which cites the OED frequently, and which made me fall in love with the Dictionary at one remove. The Shorter Oxford on the shelf in my last office was consulted regularly, though the Macquarie and then the internet came, , for different reasons, to rival it as authorities of first resort. The thing is, the OED and the SOED are useful, but they are also fun. They’re like water: you go to them because you need them but you stay and take a dip, even immersing yourself for a while, for the sheer joy of it.

To pummel that last metaphor a little, Ammon Shea stayed in the water far too long. The book resulting from his project of reading the whole thing in a year – which I blogged about the other day – is like a report from someone who has just almost drowned. Simon Winchester gives us the view from the shore, takes us diving in occasionally, lets us swim a little, and delivers plenty of draughts of the cool, refreshing stuff itself. This is pretty much the book I had unfairly expected Shea’s to be: a colourful account of the making of the  Dictionary, with lashings of background history, philology and lexicography, a gallery of striking characters and a plethora of shiny quotes. The book captures well an image of the Victorian creators of the dictionary – editors, sub-editors, paid assistants and (in their hundreds) volunteers, summarised in an epilogue as

legions of elderly, usually bearded men, formally dressed in tweeds and gabardine, sitting at high desks, pens in hand, volumes open beside them, sheaves of paper in racks and shelves and pigeonholes behind them, a heavy, cloistered atmosphere of academic rigour and polymathic knowledge enveloping and embracing them like the very air itself.

The proposal that there should be a dictionary that aimed to include the totality of the English language was first put to a meeting of the Philological Society in London in November 1857 by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench. The first edition was published, half a dozen learned and mostly eccentric editors later, in June 1928. The story of those 71 years makes up the great bulk of this book.

Simon Winchester  has an eye for the shiny piece of information that, while not strictly essential to an understanding of his subject, keeps the company amused. Sometimes he relegates a bauble to a footnote, as when, having described one Hucks Gibbs as a good shot, he adds at the bottom on the page, ‘Fairly good: he blew off his right hand in 1864, but remained keen on the sport.’ But the colour and movement mostly happens in the text itself: after all, Hucks Gibbs was important for his largely unsung role in smoothing out some nasty personality clashes that could have doomed the project. His prowess with a gun is only mentioned, one suspects, to justify the footnote. If you were a lexicographer wanting the technical inside story of this greatest of all lexicographic enterprises, such cheerful detail might be irritating. For the general educated reader such as I, they playfully echo the fascination of the Dictionary itself. (One of many moments that struck me, idiosyncratically I suppose, was on page 194, where Winchester quotes for no obvious reason the definitions of the word lap: ‘a liquid food for dogs, that part of a railway track used in common by more than one train, the front portion of the body from the waist to the knees of a person seated’. I don’t know how he restrained himself from pointing out that this illuminates Emily Dickinson’s lines about a train, ‘I like to see it lap the miles/ and lick the valleys up.’ Even though the book gives lots of evidence of his love of the language, my guess is that there are many examples of such restraint.)

2 responses to “Words words words: The Meaning of Everything

  1. I’ll have to read it, jonathan. Very much enjoyed his first hit book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

  2. Hi Richard. I haven’t read The Surgeon of Crowthorne, but W C Minor makes an appearance in this book as an excellent bit of cross promotion.

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