THE WORD DETECTIVE: SEARCHING FOR THE MEANING OF IT ALL AT THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
By John Simpson
Basic Books, $27.99, 364 pages
In 1976, when John Simpson, answering an ad in The Times Literary Supplement at the urging of the woman he would marry, landed a job as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), he had no thought of making it a career. In fact, he writes, as an English major at York University who devoted as much time to sports (captain of his hockey team) as to studies, “I’m sure I didn’t know what the word meant.”
According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, himself a lexicographer and compiler of the first authoritative English dictionary, a lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” But, of course, Dr. Johnson could never be described as a harmless drudge; nor could John Simpson, who would remain with the OED for 37 years, the last 20 of which he served as the chief editor.
From the beginning, he writes, he was captivated by the English language and its history, “how it arose in obscurity 1,500 years ago, and how it grew to define the nations that spoke it.” As a junior editorial assistant, he could rediscover facts about words and language that had been forgotten for years. His colleagues working on etymologies or pronunciations could solve problems that had bedeviled scholars for ages. Or he “could write a definition that captured precisely a meaning that had previously only shimmered uncertainly.”
“The lexicographer sees English as a mosaic — consisting of thousands of little details. Each time one of the tiny tiles of the mosaic is cleaned and polished, we see the mosaic more clearly.”
During his early years, that cleaning and polishing process proved highly satisfying, filling index cards or “slips” with new usages of old words, noting new words like “selfie,” writing definitions. Mr. Simpson writes with warmth and wit — occasionally touched with a tinge of Kingsley Amis in academe — about the 19th century atmosphere that pervaded his office, complete with a daily “dictionary tea-time.”
However, that was also the problem. And Mr. Simpson, who essentially came to work at the OED in the 19th century, was charged, as chief editor, with bringing it into the 21st — all 20 volumes, 21,730 pages, 59 million words, and still growing.
“My time at the OED coincided with the great shift from reference works as books to reference works as dynamic, online resources. Oxford was at first slow to notice that the world was changing, and much of this book is about how my colleagues and I put the OED in the forefront of this revolution” — digitizing it, devising new ways to update it, publishing it online, and making it searchable “in ways that traditional dictionary users had never imagined.”
This trans-century journey from index cards to computers provides the framework for Mr. Simpson’s narrative.
Along the way, there are many other things to like, among them his discussions of lexicography and the OED in books and movies. One such film touching on lexicography, is the long-forgotten “Ball of Fire,” a 1941 comedy with Gary Cooper as a grammarian writing an encyclopedia and Barbara Stanwyck as “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, a night club singer who adds significantly to Cooper’s vocabulary.
Simon Winchester’s book, “The Professor and the Madman,” features Sir James Murray, the OED’s first great editor, and Dr. William Chester Minor, one of the volunteers who contributed “busily and lucidly” to the OED “from his rooms in a mental hospital, to which he had been confined for murder.”
And there’s his favorite, Ammon Shea’s “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages,” a “blog-like account of reading through the dictionary from A to Z .” We hear about what if feels like “to read the letter A, and how the letter A differs in its character from the letter G. At the same time, we are introduced to the engaging parallel narrative of Ammon’s life while he was reading each letter,” an approach that “starts to bring the dictionary to life in a way that almost all other books about dictionaries fail to do.”
The same can be said of “The Word Detective,” a book about words and dictionaries, about our times and how they’re reflected in the words we write and speak, and above all about a life well lived. There have been family challenges, but they’ve been met with strength and grace.
In all, those of us who value the great language we share owe John Simpson a vote of thanks for this splendid book.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).