You wouldn’t expect a story about writing a dictionary to be very interesting. After all, dictionaries themselves are hardly riveting material. In fact, do people even read, look at, or own dictionaries any more? Isn’t Google the wellspring of information?
As a kid working on homework, when I had a question about a word or the spelling of a word my parents sent me to the dictionary. I would beg, “please, just help me out. It will take so much longer to look it up.” I would manipulate, “you probably don’t really know!” Or I would ignore the problem altogether and find a synonym, or just plain not do the work. Now, even though I am fascinated by language, have a thirst for knowledge, and appreciate learning, it is very likely that I will google the definition (yes, I just used google as a verb thereby potentially securing my place in history as one who helped to lay the written foundation to define google as an action-you’ll understand if you read the book) rather than look it up in one of the two dictionaries I have on the shelf.
Since something like looking up the definition of a word has become so simple and so ubiquitous, it is incredibly easy to take for granted the immense undertaking of cataloging every word in the English language. Have you ever considered what it took to bring all that information together? I hadn’t. And that is why I found Simon Winchester’s non-fiction history on the dictionary so impressive.
Winchester is skilled with his words. His story unfolds with the thrill of a novel. He clearly presents the key players and critical moments in history that seem to miraculously coalesce so that the behemoth now known as the Oxford English Dictionary could be born. The suspense and the drama move the story right along; from year to year, decade to decade, a job that seemed to grow increasingly more impossible struggles against the odds.
It is no spoiler to tell you that the many men and women who were necessary to complete the task eventually succeeded-today, the OED is synonymous with dictionary. Don’t know what a jingoist is? Check the OED. Don’t know what oleaginous means? Check the OED. See what I mean? The OED is the go to reference for all things English.
This story is not merely a list of definitions, but rather the experience of gathering and ordering the information used to create the definitions that fill the dictionary. And it is more diverse and surprising than you can imagine. Did you know a murderer was an essential participant? Or that J. R. R. Tolkien helped? There is also a thrilling short history of how the English language evolved. The book is filled with incredible facts, and sometimes incredible definitions. My favorite is this: RETREAT from the Dictionary of Marine: “Retreat is the order in which a French fleet retires before an enemy. As it is not properly a term of the British marine, any fuller account would be out of place” (236).
I highly recommend this book to anyone. And though you won’t walk away from it actually knowing the meaning of everything, you will almost certainly have a new-found appreciation for the work that went into writing, editing, and publishing the Oxford English Dictionary.
*I found most of the book to be quite accessible and easy to understand, but there were times when the boundaries of my vocabulary were stretched and I was sent running, not to Google, but to the OED (online). I’m making myself vulnerable here, don’t laugh at what I don’t know.
xvi: anticyclone- winds spiraling outwards
xx: jingoist-chauvinist, an extreme bellicose nationalist
xx: numistmatist- collector and student of money
xxi: lucifers- a match struck by rubbing it on a rough surface
3: suzerainty- a sovereign or state having some control over another state that is internally autonomous
6: elided- omit a sound or syllable when speaking
10: simulacrum- an image or representation of someone or something; unsatisfactory imitation
19: inchoate- just begun and so not fully formed or developed
84: oleaginous- rich in, covered with, or producint oil; oily or greasy
99: desuetude- a state of disuse
120: interrobang- ?!, a combination question mark and exclamation mark
123: orthoepy- the correct or accepted pronunciation of words
140: Stakhanovite- a worker in the former USSR who was exceptionally hardworking and productive
169: adumbrated- report or represent in outline; indicate faintly; foreshadow or symbolize
211: assiduity- constant or close attention to what one is doing
226: catafalque- a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral
233: gallimaufry- a confused jumble or medley of things
235: forfend- (archaic) avert, keep away, or prevent (something evil or unpleasant)