In his preface to Volume I of the Oxford English Dictionary, editor Sir James Murray included paragraphs taken from the famed preface of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in which Johnson compared the process of writing a dictionary to “chasing the sun” (95). As it turned out for Murray, undertaking the monumental task of writing the august and definitive reference book, referred to simply as the OED, it was a description as apt practically as it is metaphorically.
The Meaning of Everything written by Simon Winchester is something of an expansion on his 1998 book The Professor and the Madmen which examined the unlikely yet invaluable assistance given to Murray by Dr. William Chester Minor, discovered to be an inmate at an English asylum for the criminally insane. Winchester is a prolific nonfiction writer celebrated for his ability to bring life to history through a single event, person or object that may have been previously unrecognized as contributing to a consequential moment in time.
In the case of The Meaning of Everything the ubiquity of the dictionary, and its creation, is shown to have as much, if not more, drama, humor, peripeteia, and high stakes as any pursuit humans invest energy into. The contrast between such a seemingly prosaic reference book, and its true properties of thrilling human interest is rich ground for Winchester. His desire to share his own enthusiasm for history is palatable. He brings a subject normally constrained to academics within the average reader’s purview. After all, while one might not regularly think about such an everyday object, what is more basic than a book cataloguing our language? If only it were that simple.
Winchester opens his book with a brief but sweeping history of the English language in order to frame the scope and uniqueness of the project. Unlike many others, English was never a discrete language. It has always been a conglomeration of different tongues, cultures, and human movement. Simply put, a language does not balloon from 50,000 (6) words during the period of Old English (5th-11th CE) to some 414,825 (1) (as included in the 1928 first edition of the OED) unless it has a remarkable ability to absorb the influx of myriad human influence. This very faculty to expand and fold in new words is not equally shared among world languages. In fact, many willfully resist ‘corrupting’ their official languages. But even if one so desired, and some have, it’s not feasible: English has no pure root, this is what makes it unique and such a rich, ever-burgeoning and wonderful language. It is also what turns the hair of philologists gray.
It was the “learned and leisured” (37) men of The Philological Society that undertook the job to comprehensively catalogue the entire English language. With only a few predecessors: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical – although limited to the more obscure words, it was the first ever monolingual dictionary; and the near simultaneous publications of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language – at 70,000 words, twice the size of Johnson’s (35), The Philological Society wished to follow in Dr. Johnson’s vein of simply recording the language as is, rather than as Webster and Cawdrey had attempted: to correct and standardize. That was their humble desire – simply record. Reading The Meaning of Everything, one is left musing that perhaps a dictionary of that scale could only have been attempted on the heels of the hubristic age of the Enlightenment, when men felt they nearly had their arms around total knowledge of the world. As with most great works, the time was suited to the task.
Winchester makes it clear that had anyone the slightest notion of what the completion (and I use that word loosely, as indicated above- where the English language is concerned there is no such thing as “complete”) would require, it is not at all clear whether or not the book would have been attempted. What was thought would take ten years took 54, “the number of pages was not 7,000, but 16,000. And the entire cost of the project turned out not to be £9,000, but £300,000” (94). Simply securing a competent editor nearly ended the endeavor. Winchester spends some time recounting the fits and starts in which the typical personnel clashes and drama that academia and institutions seem to manufacture with particular spectacular distinction abounded. Until finally, the publisher- Oxford University (after Cambridge, presumably much to their regret, bowed out) the scene was set: enter Sir James Murray. A veritable Renaissance man: autodidact of epic ability and humble origin. Securing the job of blindly heading up the ridiculously ambitious project would be not only his, but his entire family’s life-long defining undertaking.
Begun in 1861 it was not until 1879 (97) when Murray and family were installed in Mill Hill on the outer edge of London, that the work truly got underway. One does not think of a dictionary as a book that is written per se, but the process by which the content is gathered, researched, and defined is fascinating. The Philological Society had long been at work, soliciting learned readers to the task of finding earliest known written usage of each word in the English language. Submitters were asked to fill out a “slip” with the word, source and quotation. By the time Murray came along there were so many of these slips accumulated and haphazardly accounted for that most were scattered in unknown places. It was Murray’s wife who saw an advertisement in a gardening magazine for a corrugated shed, that once installed in their backyard, solved the problem of where to collect all of the slips that had been accumulating in the previous years. Eventually the errant slips were hunted down, some found in the oddest places, and the “Scriptorium” or “the Scrippy” (105) as Murray dubbed his backyard workhouse, was in efficient working order. Winchester describes the process of working through the alphabet, recounting some of the men and women, from all corners of the world, that voluntarily did the lion’s share of the work. Their contributions and eccentricities are respectfully and ebulliently acknowledged. The difficulties and frustrations of Murray’s “harmless drudgery” (as Samuel Johnson described the painstaking work of the lexicographer) (56), shared by his assistants as well his children (picking up significant pocket change) organizing the dizzying array of words is related by Winchester with clarity, wit and suitable awe.
Among the interesting aspects of the story that Winchester does not neglect, are, of course, the words themselves. B words, for instance- something of a nightmare for the dictionary makers entailing many unfamiliar and ancient words. While C, although containing the largest quantity of words, were relatively easy to define (174). The process, beyond the myriad slips, with their earliest usage identified, of defining the words to make them practically accessible and understandable is complex. Even the editorial decisions involving pronunciation, variations of words, and the slippery meanings (after all, the raison d’être of a dictionary, if it is going to be more than a mere book of word lists, which it could have been!) is fraught with difficultly. The rule of thumb is to never have a definition use words more complex than the word attempting to be defined – not as easy as it sounds. The rare glimmers of humor and personality that slip into the definitions show at once, by their very rarity, the extreme seriousness with which the job was executed as well as, by their occasional presence, the inevitable outburst of irreverence exposing a humble concession to the impossibility of ever taking anything, much less the wily English language too seriously. The process of the making of these sorts of books is extremely engrossing for anyone with even a passing interest in language, particularly as recorded in the history of books.
With a wry retrospective eye Winchester describes the painfully, yet – with hindsight, appropriately slow progress. In a letter to a highly valued contributor who was suddenly struck ill, Murray confessed the Scriptorium’s “everyday wish,” that he had for anyone related to the dictionary’s progress, “May you live to see Zymotic!” (193).
The Meaning of Everything is a truly heroic tale of a seriously epic undertaking. The respect with which one will place the humble dictionary after reading Winchester’s account of the saga of the OED is well worth the read. The story of taking the full measure of the building blocks of our communication is as complicated as the result is elegantly simple. Winchester’s account brings to life the dynamism of English with the reverence of the intellect required to define it, as well as the irreverence of a joyous celebration of humankind’s ability to achieve great things. The Meaning of Everything, a title delightfully imbued with multiple interpretations, extols what is most wonderful in humans – our desire to keep chasing the sun.
The Meaning of Everything
By Simon Winchester
Illustrated. 260 pp. New York:
Oxford University Press