On the OED 2/23/09

For most of us, when we think of a dictionary, we think of that bulky lead weight that does nothing more than sit at that one place on our desk, in the back, or on some forgotten shelf, collecting dust. We like to say to ourselves, or when someone asks, “Yeah, I have a dictionary,” but it’s seldom used. To those of us that do, however, cherish our dictionaries and consider them, though inanimate, full-fledged members of the family, you will no doubt enjoy Simon Winchester’s book, The History of Everything, a brief tale of the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. If your interests in life have stood aloof from that of English, yet within you there is some pull to learn more about the depth of either English itself, the great dictionary or the field of lexicography, I would suggest this book to you as well.

This was the second book that I read by Simon Winchester, the British journalist and travel writer turned author, and though, from a reader’s standpoint, the story wasn’t quite as captivating as it was in his first sharing of the lexicon’s tale in The Professor & The Madman, it carried more of a comprehensive history of the dictionary. It was still an intriguing story in how much this great work (the process of compiling a work that would, ideally, include every word in the entirety of the known English language) pulled together the people of every corner of the world and so many eminent figures within the highest ranking of the literary, journalistic, lexicographic, legal and writing fields to name a few. Furthermore, these were not simply people that simply had degrees in certain areas, but were inordinately polymathic, whose rudimentary skill in language and knowledge of the sciences far surpassed the intellect of the average human being today.

Imagine a book that took the better part of 70 years to compile. Simon Winchester passes along his interest in English as well as the history of our language in recounting this tale that, for so many of us, is unknown. The senior editor of the OED, Professor James Murray started with A and spent over forty years of his life and made it mid-way through T before he died at 81 years of age.

I personally enjoyed the story and urge anyone with an interest in philology to look into it. It’s well worth the investment.


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