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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary [Hardcover]

Simon Winchester
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary 4.2 out of 5 stars (10)
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Book Description

16 Oct 2003
A kleptomaniac, the nephew of a French Emperor, the creator of an imaginary land inhabited by small hairy creatures, a homicidal lunatic, an Esperanto enthusiast, the man who introduced the camel to the Wild West, the captain of an all-ladies sculling team, a hermit, and the son of a Scottish draper. Just who were these people and what connected them to the world's greatest dictionary? It was on New Year's morning, 1928, that an eruption of mad lexical glee from a battered old typewriter on a desk in Baltimore from the hands of Henry Louis Mencken sent news all across the USA of the long-awaited publication of the book that was to crown the English language undisputed monarch of the linguistic kingdom. From the Oxford-based project a total of 414,825 words, ten times as many as had hitherto been suspected of existing, had now been recognized and catalogued, the results of seventy years of Herculean effort by scholars, linguists, and thousands of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people. The Meaning of Everything is a readily accessible historical account of the making of the remarkable Oxford English Dictionary, leading up to the appointment of the first editor, James Murray, in 1879 through to its triumphant publication in 1928 and beyond. Brought to life by Simon Winchester's characteristic talent for story-telling, the achievement of making the dictionary is an unforgettable story, and is further enlivened by portraits of the myriad characters involved in its creation. From the context of early dictionaries and national projects of the Victorian Era, Simon Winchester leads his narrative through early attempts to create what was then expected to be a four-volume dictionary, the appointment of James Murray as editor, the unusual, never-before-attempted way in which the book was constructed, and the people and processes involved in the definition of thousands of words, to the triumphant publication of the dictionary and its adaptation to the age of technology. The profound impact the volumes had when they first appeared, the fame the dictionary has had in the eight decades since, and that it can be expected to have in years to come, receive full and fascinating treatment here at the pen of the best-selling author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Map That Changed The World.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (16 Oct 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198607024
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198607021
  • Product Dimensions: 2.6 x 13.8 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 960,470 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 is a book to savour and linger over ... a book that delights and instructs in equal measure. A must for all those who use and love the language. (DAWN, Pakistan)

Responsible for first conceiving the dictionary and then seeing it to publication were an extraordinary collection of scholars, editors and keen volunteers. Winchester brings many of them to life in his book with great warmth and admiration. (DAWN, Pakistan)

with gripping narrative flair, he brings one of the most intriguing of forgotten histories to life (The Guardian)

an absorbing entertaining narrative (John Mullan, Evening Standard)

a fascinating history (Andrew Rosenheim, Independent Review)

the book has charm, eccentricity, and readability (Mark Bostridge)

In his hands, a tortuous process of scholarship becomes a fascinating story (Observer (Review))

an absorbing and entertaining history...Simon Winchester's captivating book stresses the qualities which made the Oxford English Dictionary the remarkable book that it remains (Tom Penn, Times Literary Supplement)

this is history brought to life. If you love words, this will be the most fascinating book you'll read all year (Choice Magazine)

one of the most illuminating, enjoyable reads (Tara Pepper, Newsweek)

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

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rome wasn't built in a day 4 Jan 2006
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME
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
4.0 out of 5 stars History through Anecdote 10 Dec 2003
By R. Simpson VINE VOICE
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Love's Labors Last 9 Oct 2003
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly wonderful book! 27 Sep 2012
By R Helen
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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