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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
This review is from: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (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. Murray's predecessor, Frederick Furnivall, was a brilliant man, but he lacked staying power and lost interest in the project - leaving things in a muddle. (When Murray took over he had to try to track down millions of the vital "usage slips" that were scattered all over the place - Furnivall had some and readers all over England, Europe and North America had others. There were sacks and sacks of crumbling, moldy, wet, and sometimes illegible slips. One sack had a dead rat in it. Another sack had a family of mice living quite happily amongst all that paper, which was perfect "nesting material.") Unfortunately for the dictionary, Furnivall seemed to be more interested in women. He "sacked" his wife and, at the age of 58, took up with his 21 year old secretary. He was also very interested in sculling, and manged to combine his two favorite interests by frequenting the local teashop and gathering up as many pretty waitresses as he could, and taking them out on the river to teach them the joys of sculling. Another interesting man was Henry Bradley, who became joint senior editor in 1896. He had taught himself Russian in 14 days, and had the uncanny ability to read a book when it was upside down. Mr. Winchester also mentioins that the editors sometimes consulted "linguistic advisers," such as James Platt "who knew scores of languages and once famously declared that the first twelve tongues were always the most difficult, but having mastered them, the following hundred should not pose too much of a problem." Sometimes Mr. Winchester mentions a contributor only, I suspect, because of the author's love of language: he relishes telling us about the "magnificently named" Hereward Thimbleby Price, who was born in - are you ready for this? - Amatolakinandisamisichana, Madagascar. The author tells us that the dictionary was supposed to take 10 years to complete, but it took 54; it was supposed to be 7,000 pages, but it wound up being 16,000; and it was supposed to cost 9,000 pounds, but wound up costing 300,000 pounds. Lest you think the delays and cost overruns have something to do with British academic quirkiness, Mr. Winchester explains that it is much more a matter of thoroughness. He points out that a German dictionary started in 1838 was not finished until 1961; a Dutch dictionary started in 1851 was not completed until 1998; and the Swedes, who started a comprehensive dictionary back in the 1800's, are currently stuck on the letter S. "The Meaning of Everything" is a great story, well and lovingly told by Mr. Winchester, full of incredibly bright and interesting people, and - best of all - giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the labor-intensive creation of this great dictionary.
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