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HALL OF FAMEon 4 January 2006
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. Unlike the French Academe (which does itself have to bow ultimately to public convention in matters of common use), English has been for most of its time a flexible, fluid language born of competing strands within the Indo-European language family - words have Germanic, Latinate, Celtic, Greek and other influences; in the more recent times, Native American, African and Asian words have crept into common use.
Winchester's book gives a look at the early days of the development of the major project, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the kind of language world in which this project would exist. How does one trace English language words from a diverse island of speakers who have expanded beyond that island to become a worldwide empire?
Winchester's prologue gives a good story of the inauguration of the first edition (then twelve volumes, described as 'twelve mighty tombstone-sized volumes') of the OED in the Goldsmith Hall, with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin presiding over a grand ceremony fit for a king on Derby Day. The then editor-in-chief William Craigie had been knighted and given an honourary degree from Oxford in recognition of his efforts; however, he had not been at the helm for the duration, for the task of coming to this point had begun over 70 years before - William Craigie had yet to be born when the OED project started.
Winchester gives a short description of the history and state of the language, including earlier attempts to produce dictionaries. 'Not one of them - not Johnson, not Webster, not Richardson - ever did the English language justice.' None came close to containing all the words in the English language. The pursuit of a thorough dictionary began as a pursuit 'both learned and leisured'. Progress was slow, and sometimes looked as though the whole process might falter - indeed, in the first twenty years, a mere 40 pages were in type, although hundreds of thousands of words had been collected and organised in note card fashion, stored in pigeon-holes. There were issues early that threatened the comprehensive nature of the dictionary project - Herbert Coleridge, the first editor, had moral objection to certain words being included. These were not the typical curse words, but rather words like 'devilship'. Coleridge died young, however, 'on the quintessentially English date of 23 April - both the Feast of St. George and the birthday of Shakespeare'. Coleridge's estimate of 100,000 quotations was a grand underestimate, but he did set the project on a trajectory from which it would eventually succeed.
Perhaps the most interesting characters part of this tale are Fitzedward Hall, a hermit who was obsessed with the OED project, and William Chester Minor, a murderer-lunatic whose involvement in the project was nothing short of remarkable. One can imagine that were Hall alive today, he would be obsessively glued to a computer screen tracking down words and word origins and typing up little emails to submit to the OED editorial team. Minor's way of reading, described here by Winchester, reminds me in many ways of the method by which internet reviewers sometimes size up books in preparation for writing reviews, with prodigious regularity.
This is a wonderful text, fascinating in the many details and broad in scope of the project that in many ways encompassed the whole of the English language.
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VINE VOICEon 10 December 2003
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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on 27 September 2012
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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on 3 April 2011
IT IS INDEED A PLEASURABLE READ CONSIDERING THE STYLE ADOPTED BY WINCHESTER IN WEAVING THE PLOT OF HOW THE OXFORD DICTIONARY WAS BUILT BRICK BY BRICK WITH THE HELP OF SO MANY READERS AND TO SAY THE LEAST TO SOME EXTENT HELPED BY CONTRIBUTIONS FROM A LUNATIC MURDERER. THE BOOK INTERSPERSED WITH OLD PHOTOGRAPHS IS A VERITABLE STOREHOUSE OF INFORMATION AND THE CULMINATION OF LONG AND ASSIDUOUS RESEARCH INTO THE ARCHIVES OF OXFORD AND OTHER ENGLISH INSTITUTIONS BY THE AUTHOR.

WINCHESTER WHO HAS EARLIER WRITTEN A FOREWORD TO MODERN ENGLISH USASGE BY FOWLER IS INDEED THE SUITABLE AUTHOR FOR THIS MINI-HISTORY OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY.

FOWLER FOR WHOSE BOOK WINCHESTER HAS WRITTEN A FOREWORD RAISED EYEBROWS ON THE USAGE OF DASHES IN HIS SECTION DEALING WITH PUNCTUATIONS. FOWLER USED TO ASSOCIATE DASH MARK WITH AFTERTHOUGHTS OF THE AUTHOR WHILE COMMUNICATING HIS IDEAS TO THE READERS. HE EXHORTED HIS COUNTRY MEN TO AVOID USING DASHES BY CITING THE INDISCRIMINATE USE OF THE SAME BY LAURANCE STERNE IN HIS TRISTAM SHANDY. I AM BRINGING THIS FACTOR ONLY BECAUSE WINCHESTER ALSO REVELLED IN USING DASHES TO A MAXIMUM EXTENT IN HIS PRESENT WORK. NOTWITHSTANDING THE USAGE OF DASHES THE SENTENCES WERE FULLY BALANCED AND CONVEYED CLEAR SENSE TO THE READER WHEN COMPARED TO THE CLUMSY RENDITION OF LAURANCE STERNE IN TRISTAM SHANDY WHICH FOWLER FROWNED

ON THE WHOLE A GOOD READ

C.L.MURALIDHARAN
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on 9 October 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. 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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on 12 August 2009
Okay, so the book "Meaning of Everything" is not quite the equivalent of a Doctor Who's tardis enabling to learn everything by reading the 260 page book of this name written by Simon Winchester. Instead, in this book Winchester charts the history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the people behind it.

As a topic in itself this may not present the most appealing of subjects but having read several books by Winchester before (of rather different topics) I was intrigued. The book is very well researched, detailing the personalities of each of the main characters involved in the making of the OED. I did find it went into a little too much detail of the personalities rather than the book itself but I won't let that detract from what I feel is a very well written book, and an enjoyable read.

What I found most incredible was how the dictionary design and definition structure has basically not changed for the last 100 years. It seems hard to believe in a time when such information can be filed/sorted/re-sorted via computers that previously this was all done by hand... a truly mammoth effort by a vast number of dedicated scholars.

Definitely worth reading!
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on 25 November 2011
There are very few authors who would have attempted this task and made such a success as Simon Winchester.He has the knack of talking through words to the man in the street of which I am one and a very grateful one at that.
He appreciates his assistants and always goes to great lenghths to acknowledge them in his work(s).
The book is a thriller and weaves it's way through the tortuous by-ways of what nearly didn't happen because of eltism , small mindedness and snobbery and a total preoccupation with the cost of production.Thank goodness for common sense and dogged perseverance.
I will never be able to afford the full dictionary but so what? I couldn't afford a ride on Concorde but it too was magnificent.
Thank you SW for revealing a very interesting history of how we ended up with the greatest dictionary of all time - well done you.
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on 6 July 2015
Some of the story of what is arguably the greatest dictionary (the OED) developed in any language. Simon Winchester is a great writer - read and enjoy.
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on 1 April 2014
This was interesting reading for anyone who is fascinated by language. It's well written and well read (I had it as an audiobook).
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on 18 May 2010
The 20 volume Oxford English dictionary in certain circles is considered a legend. This is the story of its birth, a labour of love, if ever there was one. Winchester colours a subject that could have been very dry largely by peopling it with some fascinating characters. He follows the at times myopic cast and the lengths they go to in gathering words, their origins and their earliest examples. Winchester writes well and at a lively pace. Unfortunately, for me the biggest flaw is it's not the The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder,Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary. Not fair I know, my expectations had been raised to an unrealistic level that Winchester would have to be a complete genius to have fulfilled. That aside this is still a pleasure to read.
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