The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester
Published by Oxford University Press on January 1, 2003
Genres: Educational, Microhistory, Nonfiction
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From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy"--and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from "the irredeemably famous" Samuel Johnson to the "short, pale, smug and boastful" schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries.
In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making--how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated--and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press.
We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium--the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it--and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption.
The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project--a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.
For English is a language that simply cannot be fixed, nor can it ever be absolutely laid down. It changes constantly; it grows with an almost exponential joy. It evolves eternally; its words alter their senses and their meanings subtly, slowly, or speedily according to fashion and need. Dictionaries that record and catalog the language cannot ever be prescriptive; they must always be entirely descriptive, telling of the language as it is, not as it should be.
I love words, researching and reading – shoot, I majored in English Literature and I basically enjoyed every second of it. I like knowing about works most people don’t. I loved being one of the few people who knew (and studied!) the poem that inspired Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.
While still in college I read Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. That was the start of my unrequited love affair with the OED (I say “unrequited” because it costs $300 a year for access!). When I learned that Winchester wrote another book about the OED, I bought it ASAP. Of course, me being me…that means I did NOT read it once I acquired it. The Meaning of Everything has been on Mt. TBR for 4 years, 10 months which qualifies it for The Mt. TBR Struggle is Real challenge!
When I first starting reading The Meaning of Everything, it looked like a possible DNF. The entire prologue and first chapter is nothing but an ode to the love of monied men in Victorian England. Winchester waxed poetically about their intelligence, their money and their leisure. He made statements that (more than implied) that there never was nor will ever be again a group as smart as these old, rich, white men who don’t need jobs.
Yeah. It came very close to being a DNF. But once I got past all of that, I was rewarded with a great story.
The English language – so fast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy, so subtle, and now in it’s never-ending fullness so undeniably magnificent – is in its essence the language of invasion.
I enjoyed The Meaning of Everything even with the initial issues mentioned above. I enjoyed The Meaning of Everything even though the creation of the OED (and thus this book) was severely lacking in women (IIRC, there were only 4 women named who had some input into the OED in any way). In fact, the first mention of any woman happened on page 19: it was an unnecessary and insulting footnote on her character while calling her husband “long suffering.” 🙁
Through most of my read, I was quite…surprised by a lot of things. I was rather shocked to learn that there was nothing like a dictionary until 1538 (meaning that Shakespeare could NOT reference a dictionary – this only increases my feelings about his genius). Even the 1538 dictionary was not a dictionary as we know them today: instead it was a listing of words (with no definitions) with their Latin translation. In fact, most of the early ‘dictionaries’ were mainly to assist with difficult translations while not providing definitions. I also found it interesting that – as each new dictionary was being created – authors of previous dictionaries accused new dictionary authors of plagiarism.
The creation of the OED was fraught with difficulty. English is a difficult language because it is a “living language” that is constantly changing meanings and adding new words.
Words from every corner of the globalized world cascade in ceaselessly, daily topping up a language that is self-evidently living, breathing, changing, evolving as no other language ever has, nor is ever likely to.
Due to the complexity of the English language, it was decided that all the dictionaries that came before the OED should be dismissed. They had incorrect definitions and were missing most words in the English lexicon.
For that reason alone, Thomas Blount, barrister of Worcestershire, Catholic to the core, wealthy and leisured and a linguist considerable talent, deserves to be remembered: not as the father of modern dictionaries maybe, but at the lexicographer who saw the light – who realized the ceaseless magnitude of the task (if it were ever to be undertaken) of gathering together all of the thousands upon thousands of ever-changing words with which generations of invaders and wanderers had littered and seasoned the peculiarly English means of saying things. To remark that English lexicography is like herding cats, as the saying has it, is only the half of it.
No, nothing that had so far been made was good enough. What was needed was a brand new dictionary. A dictionary of the English language in it’s totality. Not a reworking of the existing mis-formed and incomplete works; not a further attempt to make any one of the past creations somehow better or more complete; not a supplement, as the Unregistered Words Committee planned to publish. No, from a fresh start, from a tabula rasa, there should be constructed now a wholly new dictionary that would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything.
While I was still in high school, one of the things I learned was that people in the Victorian age didn’t have the [educational] opportunities that we have now. Education was reserved for the wealthy while the rest needed to work. So, academics of the masses only had one educational opportunity: to educate themselves. Most of those did so by reading. There are hard to find books that have handwriting in margins: every time someone reading would find a word they didn’t recognize; they would look it up in the dictionary and then write the definition in the margin(s). Strangely enough, I had no clue that this looking up and writing down of definitions was something that had recently become available to people. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary opened the world to people in so many ways that were not available in the past.
One of the amazing things I learned in reading The Meaning of Everything, was that [some] other languages had committees like that to contain the language. I was shocked. I’ve never heard of such a thing! I told several different people this and – like me – they were dumbfounded.
For English is not to be regarded in the same way as, say, French or Italian, and in one crucially important way. It is not a fixed language, the meaning of it’s words established, approved, and firmly set by some official committee chart with preserving it’s dignity and integrity.
Over the course of my reading, there were moments of extreme jealousy. Over and over Winchester mentions that the people creating and discussing and molding dictionaries (and thus the future of the English language) are learned men of leisure. Ugh. When my husband asked me what I’d want to do most now [job wise], it is to become a librarian. But at one point (a long time ago) I was green with envy when I learned of philology. I have no real interest (beyond curiosity) in Lexicography but philology…
I heartily recommend this micro history on the Oxford English Dictionary. It truly is a great love letter to the English Language.
Words I had to define
Vinerian Professor of English Law164