Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press (2003) 260 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

for the most important book published in English during the last calendar year:

At one time or another, I imagine anyone who has used the voluminous tomes that make up the OED have wondered, even in passing, how these things were compiled, and by whom—just how it was that they came to be. I have, certainly, and with just enough interest to look into the matter a bit, but never to the point where the scholars and others who produced the greatest monument to a living language, ever, became in any way real or personalized to me. The present book is a definitive history of the OED, and is important for that reason alone, but it is its Human Interest stories (and true ones) that distinguish it as a singular masterpiece.

Geniuses, pedants, murderers and eccentrics, paid and unpaid: the contributors were legion and ran the gamut of class, gender, and nationality. The stories of the most illustrious of these figures, as related in Winchester's witty and flowing prose, does more than rescue fascinating individuals from complete obscurity while making for a Good Read; this is, somehow, a story of hope, of dedication, and of perseverance, proof that the work of people we've never heard of has literally changed our lives and the language we speak, forever. Such revelations of these are especially poignant to me, personally, even as I write this and realize I have no idea who is going to read it or if it will help them at all. Like the writers of the OED, or at least some of them, my messages feel as if trapped inside the proverbial bottle, and what I do I do for love or insanity even, certainly not money or fame.

I read almost 200 books though, and compose some 100,000 words on an OFF year, in every medium and tone I can think of, and publish at least half of them, somewhere. In 2002 and 2003 I did easily twice this, and even coined a few words—all for little or no compensation, but because I feel if I can, I should. I see myself in these pages, albeit darkly. So I approach this book with an almost pensive eye, and far from laughing at the idiosyncrasies of the OED's Compilers, I thrill at their newfound nominal immortality, and consider that my debt to their labors is immeasurable.

Yet this book is so interesting and fun that one can feel elegiac towards it for only so long, before the mercurial spirit that somehow informed this Project becomes as lively as those who participated in its creation, whose labors were so immense my own woe is rendered churlish. On the book's front flyleaf, Harold Bloom calls these men "Dickensian characters: James Murray [the project's Director], Fitzedward Hall [a disgruntled former academic], W.C. Minor [a former Civil War doctor and later insane murderer] and... Frederick Furnivall" [a disorganized scholar with a penchant for sculling and young women, whose Ancient Mariner-esque appearance makes him ideal for a figure of humor]. Winchester has already dealt with Murray and Minor in his bestselling The Professor and the Madman (1999), so I can hear objections already (although I almost never read other writings on the books I review) that Winchester the Storyteller is milking this story for all it's worth, and exaggerating the interesting aspects of its major participants' personalities, focusing on these men to the exclusion of others who may not be as entertaining. Further, I anticipate that some will feel that Winchester is belittling his very heroes by focusing on their oddities.

And he probably is. Okay? In fact, it's rather obvious. Otherwise, this is just another dry-as-dustheap throwaway. But this doesn't mean that YOU, the Reader, cannot pursue the topic further, or enjoy this book for what it is.

And it IS a great deal. Furnished with a compendious bibliography, it offers tantalizing tidbits of information that give one a glimpse of the overall process of seventy years of laborious toil in such a way as a dry remark could never do. Further, The Meaning of Everything is quite illustrative in its examples of the difficulties faced by the Compilers at every stage of the process, and far from ending with a guffaw at the stodgy Victorians, it takes us right up into the modern era of the dictionary and describes the ongoing work on and plans for its constant revision.

Combine this with a veritable mini-history of the English dictionary itself that led UP to the project and made it necessary, and throw in copious details about other individuals and institutions involved even peripherally in the project, and one is amazed at what Simon Winchester has achieved in an eminently readable 250 pages of normal-sized print with wonderful pictures. And finally, he never said this book was the last word on the subject—oh, far from it.

There are still thousands of words yet to be defined.


—Special thanks are due my father, Robert B. McGowin, for giving me this excellent book, for otherwise I might never have read it. —K.M.


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