The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Reviewed by Ali Begazo

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How often do you use a dictionary? If you’re like me you may have just experienced a split-second long mental image of typing out the first few letters of dictionary.com. Maybe you’re remembering that time in the second grade when you asked your teacher how to spell “social” and she told you to look it up in the class dictionary and all you could think was “How am I supposed to find it in the dictionary if I can’t spell it?” Chances are since then you’ve turned to one-click definitions that you can find for free online; not many of us waste time flipping through a physical dictionary if we happen to stumble across the word “disclander” reading Chaucer. But all of the definitions on the Internet have to come from somewhere, and chances are the definition you used to understand the obscure Middle English word “disclander” was first found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary is an intense, dramatic history about the seventy-one year journey to compile the largest and most respected dictionary in the English language. The book is full of colourful and sympathetic characters, an endless amount of trivia, and has an easy, turn-paging style that genuinely makes you want to know how the OED ended up the way it did. Winchester is more concerned with how the dictionary came into being and how it developed over the years than he is with its actual triumphant publication in 1928. It is also a book that attempts to leave no personal history left out, no minute misstep without explanation, no stone left unturned. The intimacy between the author and the history (and, at times, the reader) makes us question what silences have been left out of the story.

Can there actually be more to know about the creation of the OED? Does anyone care? (Apparently Winchester does, and deeply so.) The first time I paused in my reading was when Winchester wrote that James Murray, the editor of the bulk of the dictionary in its formative years, as well as Winchester’s protagonist, “felt a certain sense of ignominy mingling with his peers” due to his lack of formal education. (82) Phrases like this, ones that casually insert the personal feelings of long-dead actors into the story, are frequent throughout the book. Winchester does not list any of Murray’s personal journals in his bibliography, but he does list a few biographies on the man. Is he describing this “ignominy” based on conclusions already drawn by somebody else, or does he extrapolate these ideas himself based on the secondary sources he has chosen to examine? His bibliography includes works that could have provided the bulk of the information but it’s difficult to believe that he could have found so much personal information on so many people through exclusively secondary sources. This must have come from his vague section Notes and Queries, or from his very creative imagination.

Despite the questions about his embellishments, there is no doubt that Winchester has carried out extensive, exhaustive research on the topic; no one who reads The Meaning of Everything can accuse its author of being careless with his research. Perhaps Winchester’s problem with silences lies in his attempt to remove them entirely from his history of the OED. He laments that he couldn’t include the names of each of the thousands of volunteers who submitted quotations, but does his best to put in as many as possible. Minor characters are treated as essential game-changers and bumps in the road to the dictionary’s publication are described with such gravitas it becomes almost comical. Reading the book you get the feeling that there can’t possibly be any more information about the birth of the OED.

It can be said, however, that the hypercorrections Winchester makes in order to frantically fill in the silences in his story make for better reading. We can question how accurate his details are, but we can’t say that they don’t make the book much more interesting. The Meaning of Everything has an incredible amount of facts- dates, events, and, most interesting of all, useless trivia, all of which serve to contextualize the importance of the OED as well as the difficult and long seventy-one years that it took to bring the project to fruition. Winchester excels in taking a seemingly endless amount of information, contextualizing it, and making it interesting. His style is easy to follow and at times borders on lyrical; the intimate pictures he paints of the lives of the editors make the creation of the OED much more interesting than I thought possible. You finish the book appreciating the difficulties in locating, defining, and finding quotes for every word ever used in the English language, ancient, modern, and absolutely everything in between.

I was a little shocked, however, when, once the star editor of the dictionary died after years and years of writing out definitions, Winchester chose to speed through the remaining thirteen years that it took to publish the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. The culmination of over half a century of work was glossed over in favour of an ode to the volunteers who worked on the dictionary in its infancy. To be fair, at this point I doubt most readers would have appreciated being introduced to a completely new range of characters, but it seems strange that Winchester would choose to abandon the incredibly thorough structure he chose to follow earlier in his work. It almost cheapens the end of the book by making it seem like Winchester simply lost some steam along the way. You are left wondering what was left out- what silences are there? The author’s inexplicable change of heart is disappointing after you’ve spent so much time investing yourself in the story of the dictionary.

Despite this issue, the book does an excellent job of making an otherwise obscure story into an exciting case study. As I mentioned before, there are a million little surprising facts that make the story worthwhile. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien helped edit the dictionary; one prominent editor was written in as a character in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows; a bona fide Bonaparte submitted words. Winchester excels at keeping his reader engaged and fascinated. Despite the questions I have about the conclusions he draws, there is no doubt that he committed a substantial amount of time and an enormous amount of effort to researching the topic. Whatever silences there may be as a result of his fantastic inferences, there are no truly glaring discrepancies that call into doubt the author’s credibility.

The Meaning of Everything is an example of a work of popular history that succeeds in being both captivating and informative. Despite the massive amount of information that is thrown at you, you don’t finish the book feeling overwhelmed. The story of the OED is not one that many people know about, nor is it one that will ever be common knowledge. But it is definitely worthwhile to read The Meaning of Everything, if only to have the pleasure of experiencing vicariously the passion and excitement Simon Winchester has for the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

One response to “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Reviewed by Ali Begazo”

  1. benwong says:

    I loved this book! and your review! I agree that the last bit of the book was super rushed but quite frankly, it’s hard to keep a good narrative going when your main actor has died but the subject (the OED) is still waiting to be born. Winchester has a few books on Hong Kong and the Pacific world that I’ve read, and although he has a weird thing for “great men”, the ones that I’ve read have been great.

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