- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003


By Simon Winchester

Oxford University Press, $25, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY WOODY WESTtor of The Washington Times.

This book, to get right to it, is a delight. Simon Winchester’s history of the 70-year labor to bring forth the Oxford English Dictionary is a superb account of an undertaking that refreshes an appreciation of the intellectual vivacity and audacity of the Victorians.

The dictionary, intended to be “an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view,” in the 1857 words of the clergyman who articulated the initial concept, would at completion in 1928 comprise 12 “tombstone-sized” volumes. Its 15,490 pages of single-spaced text contained 414,825 words with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations.

“The English language — so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy, so subtle, and now in its never-ending fullness so undeniably magnificent — is in its essence the language of invasion.” It came to the island, Mr. Winchester recounts, from the Celts who originated in the upper valleys of the Danube, from the Romans and the invaders and settlers from the North Sea, who were variously Frisians, Jutes, Saxons, and Angles. In the 8th century the Vikings, in terrifying raids and occasional settlement, roughly made their linguistic contribution. By the 11th century, the “nation in the making” was formally known as England. Then arrived the Norman French who held sway for three centuries.

In the middle of the 15th century, along came William Caxton of Westminister, the printer whose books established from the polyglot past an available standard for the English of the day, writes Mr. Winchester. As the fleets of exploration by the 17th century began to touch every corner of the globe, words were adapted to the swelling vocabulary of English from India and Turkey, Arabia and Malaya, Japan and North America.

Periodically there were efforts to get a net around this writhing linguistic mass, and the first dictionary was edited in 1578 — though it would not meet any later definition of the term, nor would other numerous attempts. Not until 1755 was there a compilation that formally could be called a dictionary: It was, of course, Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” which remained in print for well over a century. That pioneering lexicographer (or “harmless drudge,” as the wry editor defined himself) and his six associate drudges labored for six years to produce this “majestic” book.

Johnson decided that, among the written sources he culled for his dictionary, he would restrict himself for the sake of time and money to books published since 1586. This excluded such beacons of the literature as the “Canterbury Tales” and the Bibles of John Wyclif and William Tyndale, for example.

As the 18th century expired, new dictionaries multiplied, not least the “formidable” American production by Noah Webster. Larger and more comprehensive than Samuel Johnson’s, it fast became “the gold standard of the lexicographers’ art,” writes Mr. Winchester, and sold almost as well in England as in America.

There was a “vague unease” as the 19th century rolled along that none of the available dictionaries was satisfactory. In 1842, the Philological Society was formed in London, and in 1857 its erudite members acknowledged this ill-defined dissatisfaction and provided the seed corn as it were of the eventual OED. The new dictionary would “be the result of the reading and scanning and scouring of all literature,” writes Mr. Winchester, an inventory of every known English word.

As enunciated by the Society’s Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminister, the new dictionary “would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything” [authors emphasis]. It sounded like a scheme that was on “just the titanic scale which Victorian Britain seemed these days to be taking in its stride.”

Within three years the Philological Society was able to publish the rules and methods for the great book. Dean Trench was at the helm of the immense project only briefly before his clerical duties led him to hand off to Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet, as editor. Coleridge was a workaholic and tubercular, a combination that killed him at 31 in 1861. Mr. Winchester credits him with organizing the “first small army” of volunteer readers who would be critical in finding quotations to show words in contexts that would illustrate over time their various meanings and senses.

Next in the chair was Frederick James Furnivall, “an eccentric of the fullest flower,” writes Mr. Winchester — one of the “most colourful, most memorable, and deservedly best loved.” He was, however, without “any sustained sense of organization or self-discipline” as a dictionary editor. In the years of Furnivall’s tenure, the work on the dictionary “staggered, stalled, and then very nearly died itself.”

Then in 1875,James Augustus Henry Murray arrived, a Scottish draper’s son who had left school at 14. Self-taught, an omnivorous reader with a growing intellectual reputation, the 38-year-old member of the Philological Society approached Furnivall when he heard a new editor was being sought and offered himself. “He radiated a magisterial air of righteous authority,” writes Mr. Winchester — he was the man who would make all the difference.

With Murray’s entry into the tale, a good many readers of this book perhaps will be momentarily perplexed: Mr. Winchester’s earlier book was “The Professor and the Madman,” subtitled, “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” It prominently featured Murray and his stewardship of the dictionary. Mr. Winchester, one supposes, was energized after that 1998 book to explore more deeply the remarkable history of OED.

“The Meaning of Everything” has width and depth that is captivating. Mr. Winchester elaborates in vivid and often charming detail the decades of the OED’s creation — the vital and numbing attention to detail year after year, the sheer immensity of the task, and the invariable obstacles that from time to time threatened the publishing epic.

Of the various abysses, probably the most severe occurred fairly early on, as the great book’s first section (every single English word between A and Ant) was about to be published in 1884. Benjamin Jowett, (in Mr. Winchester’s description) the “infuriating, arrogant, self-regarding, and yet quite unspeakably brilliant martinet” Master of Balliol and a power on the Oxford Press governing body, tried in effect to hijack Murray’s editorial prerogative and restrict the scope of what now seemed an interminable work. Murray erupted, threatened to resign and take a job in America. A skillful intermediary finally managed to avert the storm, but it was a close-run thing. Ironically, the pair eventually became friends.

With some regularity the sections and volumes began appearing, with a co-editor, Henry Bradley, now sharing the burden. The complete Vol. 1 (A and B) was published in 1888, in 1895 the 12th section (Deceit to Deject) was in the bookstores.

But with only six letters of the alphabet to go, Murray died on July 26, 1915.

It was another 13 years, 1928, before the OED “was finally and fully made,” writes Mr. Winchester. In 1933 the first supplement was published. Four more supplements followed, the last in 1986. In 1989, a 20-volume second edition blossomed.

The completion of the OED was marked on June 6, 1928 with a celebratory dinner at Goldsmiths’ Hall. The 150 guests represented “a stellar gathering” of the nation’s intellect, men “monumentally distinguished in achievement and standing,” notes Mr. Winchester, and the principal address was given by the nation’s three-term Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin.

Language is never static, of course, and a Revised Edition was published this summer in 20 volumes.

The OED, Mr. Winchester writes, was the finest dictionary ever constructed in any language, “made, as it happens, of the language that is the most important in the world, and probably will be for all time.”

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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