The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Meaning of Everything Simon Winchester

Books (and words), like people, have histories. There is only dictionary in the world that attempts to trace the history of the words that it defines: It is the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary, a 20-volume treasure. The book, The Meaning of Everything, reveals the people and the intriguing stories behind the creation of this magnificent dictionary.

As an English Lit major and lover of word-histories, in 1990, I became a proud possessor of an unabridged, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the leather-bound, gold-edged edition, as released in 1989. The OED is said to be the greatest monument ever erected to a living language and the most coveted possession of public and private libraries throughout the Western World. Even though it is now available in digital form, the book-version is ever better to study by a roaring fire with a sumptuous wine. How and when and by whose hands did this triumph come into being?

The OED is much more than the greatest dictionary ever written; it defines the center of the English language. It contains the histories of 615,000 words, 2.5 million illustrative quotations, 59 million words, 22,000 pages and weighs some 140 pounds. Even so, why would anyone write a book about its creation, and why would it become a national best seller and dubbed Book of the Year in 2004 by countless major newspapers and critics, and why would Simon Winchester, the eloquent author of three earlier best selling history-related books, spend his time writing about a subject as dry and arcane as the evolution of a dictionary? These are the questions that I posed, when the book was given to me by my friend and avid reader, a prominent attorney specializing in worldwide immigration from Canada, David Lesperance. The book provided the answers.

Oxford University and its Oxford Press began to create “the greatest of all dictionaries” in 1857. Little could anyone have known that it would be 71 years of dogged work by a veritable army of Oxford researchers before its release in 1928, or that its completion would be so costly as to nearly force its termination and require charitable re-funding countless times or that it would utilize an endless parade of scholars whose in-fighting would often jeopardize its continuance, or that its progress would have been halted dozens of times without the endless devotion and research of thousands of volunteers, and that its most lauded contributors would include an imprisoned murderer, a self-mutilating psychotic, famous authors (like Tolkien of Hobbit fame), and innumerable often long-bearded Victorians, dressed in tweeds and gabardines, seated in rigid chairs, using quill-like pens dripping with ink in the cloistered, musty atmosphere of academics, where every cubic inch of vertical space in the building was covered in pigeonholes stuffed with thousands of illustrative quotations. These indefatigable, dedicated volunteers donated the bulk of their working lives to the OED.

After its publication in 1928, the OED was updated by supplements every five years or so, but it wasn’t redone, cover to cover, until 1989, when the current, magnificent 20-volume set was issued. Simultaneously, a binary version was released for computer use. The latter is a great convenience for use by travelers, but the hard-copy version is ever the best for relaxed research and savoring the nuances of our language. Winchester’s Story is written in fine, entertaining prose with fascinating insights and with humor. For etymologists, lexicographers, philologists and other word-mavens, it is a must read. For those not so interested in words, other books may suit them better. For me, it afforded a chance to spend time with some dear friends: words.