The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

It’s hard not to be enchanted by a book called The Meaning of Everything.  Harder still to avoid its siren call when that title is followed with the subtitle The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary and paired with an author’s name that is so typically and wonderfully British that it seems the author was named specifically to compliment the book.  But when said book chronicling the story of the English language’s most definitive dictionary has a chapter entitled, “The Hermit and the Murderer–and Hereward Thimbleby Price” it becomes truly irresistible.  Having read hundreds of books and thousands of chapters, I can say definitively that there is no more disarmingly charming and unexpected chapter title than this.

Unfortunately, the above mention chapter is far into the book and the intrigue it presents in what–at first glance–may seem to be a “dry” subject comes some six chapters equaling 185 pages (nearly three full quarters of the book) after you begin.  Chapter length can be a bit daunting.  But, never fear, the chapters are arranged to have several sections in each, so you can easily pause mid-chapter, and the bewitching playfulness of chapter seven’s title is, by then, a standard well-kept from the Prologue of this wonderful book.

Considering the subject matter, it seems only fitting that I finished this book the day I chose by happy accident to wear the t-shirt proudly proclaiming myself to be a bibliophibian (meaning one who breathes both books and water, a word the OED has yet to see fit to include in its honorable tomes).  After all, one learns, the strongest tradition of the OED is the legions of volunteer readers who send in quotations illustrating obscure, old, out-dated, merely out-of-fashion, current, or entirely new senses of words.  I want this job.

The breadth and depth of the project that took nearly seventy years to complete, as well as seven Senior Editors (though three remain vastly uncredited, as nothing beyond sample pages were published while they handled the project), is summarily encased in the prologue of the book, which graciously provides the specs of the first edition of the OED: 12 tombstone sized volumes containing 15, 490 pages of single spaced text cover the then 414,825 words of the English language with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations.  These contained a total 227,779,589 letters and numbers which occupied 178 miles of type.  All of this represented the work of several lifetimes, much of it donated by those who wished to help the scholarly endeavor.

As I’ve learned, the OED was a source of light and hope to many people.  In fact, it was exactly that for the hermit and murder of chapter seven fame.  A man once honored in the peak of the academic world was wrongfully ousted from his high seat and responded in hermitic fashion.  He spent the remaining thirty-two years of his life cloistered by his anger, but kept company by the Dictionary for many of these.  He is widely regarded as one of the greatest contributors and, in return, his academic standing was–if not returned–proved by his contributions.  The other was a schizophrenic with psychotic episodes who also found his redemption in the pages of “the Big Dictionary” (as long-time Senior Editor James Murray called it).  During one of his psychotic episodes, he shot a man.  This lead to him finding himself with time in abundance in a psychiatric facility.  Rather than actively contribute, however, he waited for requests from the Dictionary staff.  Once received, he would respond to a request by pulling out scads of homemade books of illustrative quotations (organized by source book, no less) and provide the information needed, plus any extra the staff could have wished for.  In the matter of a day or two.

Of course, Sir James Murray was no stranger to the redeeming qualities of the book.  As Senior Editor to what eventually became the OED, he saw these stories as well as was part of them.  There were endless arguments with the publishers, and he nearly always emerged the winner.  He was dedicated to the purity and academic quality of the book, regardless of the quantity it required.  He had a high regard for accuracy, and for every enemy this made him, it made him–the book seems to imply–at least one full hundred friends.  Considering that he began the process with red hair and beard and never lived to see it end (passing away with the most spectacularly white beard), one might say these friends were well deserved.

But, as interesting as the story and the book’s people are, I wish to leave the reading of it to you.  Half the fun of this book is the discovery.

As for the book’s style, well, it is simply marvelous.  There is no reason that historical records should be boring, but they seem to end up that way more often than not.  Winchester not only manages to avoid that trap, I don’t think there’s a single moment I can even call the book slow or slightly dull.  His storytelling style is engaging.  He doesn’t hesitate to meander into the rabbit trails that we so often find ourselves following in oral tellings of stories.  In fact, he makes an art of it.  But each meandering has a significance of its own and yet, as fun as they are, Winchester always has a more interesting tidbit that brings you back to the main story, more interested than ever.  As one should expect in a book about the überdictionary, he also makes sure to use words that require a little thinking, perhaps even use of the subject.  And he never lacks illustrative quotations. 😉

Speaking of illustrations, included are several pictures worth looking at.  Winchester was very careful to give a face to the main players of the Dictionary, as well as as many minor characters as he could.  Admittedly, this helps quite a bit, and the cheery Santa-like man in an academic cap from the cover of the book (and his associates) becomes alive in the book.

Also, the footnotes alone are worth reading the book.  Many are hilarious, some poignant, some a mere word or two, others full paragraphs.  They are beautiful (and full of rabbit trails).

Conversational without foundering in purposelessness, informative while hardly punctilious, fast-paced but never sloppy, this book is possibly one of the best stories I have read.  It’s also entirely true.  It sings of unsung heroes, which I love considering that many books like this choose to honor only one or two of that breed.  Winchester honors thousands, and names as many as possible.  He says of them:

We know these things [about the volunteers], but we do not really know why so many people gave so much of their time for so little apparent reward.  And this is the abiding and most marvellous mystery of the enormously democratic process that was the Dictionary–that hundreds upon hundreds of people, for motives known and unknown, for reasons both stated and left unsaid, helped to chronicle these immense complexities of the language that was their own, and that they dedicated in many cases–such as the Thompson sisters [two dedicated volunteers who sub-edited all letters following C] did–years upon years of labor to a project of which they all, buoyed by some set of unfathomable and optimistic notions, insisted on becoming a part.  The Thompson sisters of Liverpool, Reigate, and Bath, living an otherwise blameless and unremarkable (though moneyed) suburban life in three most ordinary English towns, left no greater memorial than the one they performed for the greatest literary enterprise of history.  They became footnotes in eight-point Clarendon type in a preface to a volume of that enterprise.  That was truly their only reward–and yet in all likelihood they, and scores of others like them, surely wanted no other.

I can think of no better description of the legion of volunteers.  The most blameless and unremarkable of people (though, Winchester is careful to note there were several remarkables as well) dedicated lives to this Dictionary.  Thankfully, as grand as these figures are, the book also celebrates the imperfection of the men on the project, as well as occasionally mentioning the newest edition’s men and women who are already recognizing their own potential failings and compensating for it.  He clearly has great respect for the old and new guards.

I went into reading this book loving the OED.  I would not have survived my thesis (or several bouts with one particularly vexing professor) without it.  I have come out of the experience with nothing less than a dedication bordering on worship to the book and the history that it encompasses in its depths.  It is truly a work for the ages and I so look forward to 2037 when, 44 years after work began on it, the Third Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is projected to be released.

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P.S.  If any of you were wondering, I chose not to update yesterday in the hopes I could finish this book today.  Normally, this will not happen, but as I published twice on Thursday, I felt a little better about it.

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One thought on “The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

  1. Pingback: Share from The Legal Geeks: An ode to footnotes « Joie means Joy

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