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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – 23 Sep 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; New Ed edition (23 Sep 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805762
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805768
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.5 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 283,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied Geology at Oxford University. He is the author of 'Atlantic','A Crack in the Edge of the World', 'Krakatoa', 'The Map That Changed the World', 'The Professor and the Madman', 'The Fracture Zone', 'Outposts', 'Korea', among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Ask a logophile or crossword-puzzle addict what the holiest of holy reference works might be, and you're almost certain to receive a three-letter acronym in reply: the OED. The Meaning of Everything is its story. Now in 20 volumes and still growing, the Oxford English Dictionary is an astounding monument, one that, like the Great Wall and the Roman Forum, seems to have been around forever. But, writes the always interesting explorer Simon Winchester in, it took decades--and considerable sums of money--to bring it into being. The Scottish autodidact James Augustus Henry Murray, surrounded by a small army of underpaid and overworked helpers, laboured over it for more than half a century, seeing into print "a total of 227,779,589 letters and numbers, occupying fully 178 miles of type" that brought the elusive histories of words such as walrus (courtesy of JRR Tolkien) and cow ("the female of any bovine animal", courtesy of Murray himself) into sharp relief. The making of the great dictionary over the years and decades seems an unlikely topic for a sometimes romantic, sometimes suspenseful tale, but Winchester delivers just that. Those who cherish words will find it a constant pleasure. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


compelling reading. Winchester is excellent on the theory and practice of lexicography (Sunday Times)

Irresistible (The Independent)

Simon Winchester's book is a fascinating catalogue of political wrangles, logistical conundrums and personal battles that underlay the work's creation. This book is a delightful curiosity (Zoe Green, Daily Telegraph)

Splendid history of the OED (The Scotsman)

Splendid history of the OED (Evening Standard)

Simon Winchester has told this story with a touch of human drama and with a true sense of the social history that surrounded the enterprise. (Stephen Wade, Contemporary Review)

A lively and largely informative chronicle of a still-staggering enterprise (Helen Zaltzman, Observer)

Review from previous edition My book of the year, for pure exuberant, serious, funny, short, full, entrancingly readable account (Jane Gardam, Spectator)

absorbing and entertaining (Times Literary Supplement)

the account is engaging and its conclusion a absorbing account (The Scotsman)

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME on 4 Jan 2006
Format: Paperback
The towering products of the English language include several disparate kinds of works - the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Chaucer, the Authorised King James Version of the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the book that is the subject of Simon Winchester's text, the Oxford English Dictionary. Contrary to the belief of some who might never have seen the dictionary, this is no 'mere' dictionary. Some people have the two volume edition that comes in a box-slip case with a magnifying glass (I remember being offered one such when I belonged to a book club twenty years ago), whereas major libraries will have the larger-print 20 volumes of words.
This is a publication still in progress. The OED now has plans for a BBC television show that hunts for words and word origins; the website edition of the OED is in constant revision and very heavily used. According to the OED, 'The Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past. It traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.' How did it come to have such authority in the English language?
One thing to consider about the difference between English and a language such as French is that there is no definitive central authority that has official imprimatur over linguistic matters.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By R. Simpson VINE VOICE on 10 Dec 2003
Format: Hardcover
The Oxford English Dictionary, as it eventually came to be called, neatly spanned the traditional life of Man in the three-score-ten-and-a-bit years from Chenevix Trench's rallying cry in November 1857 to the completion celebrations in June 1928. Inevitably, considering the scientific and technical developments of those years, it was instantly out-of-date and the 1933 Supplement soon followed. What is remarkable is that the format and methods remained so secure over such a time span. Equally impressive is the number of editors, sub-editors, contributors, etc., whose longevity matched their dedication - notably, of course, Sir James Murray, the first properly organised editor who took the project as far as T. Simon Winchester wears his learning more lightly than the OED itself, telling the fascinating story with clarity and scholarship, but equally with entertaining recourse to anecdotes about the eccentrics who seemed to be drawn to an enterprise as crazy as it was essential. Winchester's own love of words adds a good deal to the charm of the book, even if his inability to resist lists, parentheses and funny names occasionally irritates.
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49 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on 9 Oct 2003
Format: Hardcover
Oddly enough, I first became fascinated by words and their meanings many years ago when I learned the difference between etymology and entymology (and had to use the "trick" of remembering that, because it contained an "n", as did the word insect, entymology was the word which meant the study of insects, and etymology was the word that defined the study of the history and development of words). The world, thank goodness, is full of people who love words and language, and Simon Winchester is one of those people. His enthusiasm comes through on every page of this wonderful book. One gets the impression that Mr. Winchester, if he possessed a time machine, would happily go back to, say, 1880, and be one of the numerous and unsung readers that sent in "slips" to the editors of the "great dictionary project," to show the various historical usages of words. As Mr. Winchester points out, the dictionary was a labor of love by the few who were paid, and by the many who were unpaid. The man who was mainly responsible for the form the dictionary assumed, its thoroughness and layout, and who guided the great project from when he signed a formal contract in March 1879, up until his death in 1915, was James Murray. (The 1879 contract, by the way, specified that the project would be completed within 10 years. It wasn't. The OED wasn't completed until 1928, 13 years after Murray's death.) Murray was an amazing man. Although he had very little formal education, he was intellectually formidable - being familiar with over 20 languages. As Mr. Winchester points out, though, Victorian England seemed to produce an inordinate number of such people - and quite a few of them contributed to the creation of the dictionary. A great deal of the fun of this book comes from learning about the personalities of some of these people.Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By R Helen on 27 Sep 2012
Format: Hardcover
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It seems strange that a book about a dictionary could be so fascinating, but it really is. First, there is the incredible amount of painstaking work that went into creating the dictionary (it took 70 years to finish, and hardly anyone was alive to see it the whole way through!) Then there were the colourful characters who contributed (the murderer William Chester Minor and the hermit Fitzedward Hall, among others). But the really wonderful part of this book, is the "re-discovery" by the reader of the English language. Simon Winchester presents us with a basic history of the English language and gives us many examples of words, their origins, their first usages and the tension and excitement of deciding which words will ultimately make it into the finished product. At the same time, we feel the drama as the characters work through the tremendous amount of information provided to them (and feel the agony when, after 20 years and James Murray takes over, it is discovered that much has been destroyed and they will almost have to start all over again!). And of course we rejoice as each volume is released. It is a race to see how far Murray can get before his time in this world is through and sad he never sees the final culmination of his life's work.

Simon Winchester is by far one of my favorite authors becuase, as a great writer should be able to do, he can turn the most mundate topics into narrative masterpieces. He has done this so many times before and he has certainly done it again with this book. I have already read it twice. It is a truly absorbing read and five stars is not enough!
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