Historical Non-Fiction Book for Word Nerds is Surprisingly Entertaining, Eventually
Having recently acquired what I assumed to be an original 12 “Tombstone-Sized” Volume Set of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to sell on behalf of a local public library, I decided to read “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,” to gain some background knowledge regarding this massive and comprehensive collection of our English language.
Early on, the book appeared to be a bore, a niche history lesson only of interest only to Oxford University caliber scholars, word nerds, philologists and lexicographers (grab your bedside dictionary if you have to). The first chapter devoted itself to the history of the English language, and before I completed the first 45 pages, I found myself having to renew my monthly lease at the local public library due to lack of interest. Then, unexpectedly, the book became fascinating, and the lofty vocabulary and voice that at first made Winchester seem braggadocious (a word I just invented, a distant cousin of braggadoccio) now became the voice of an expert whose passion for history, scholarship and the eccentric figures surrounding the creation of the OED becomes contagious.
In the second chapter (c. 1860), we are introduced to several of the most pivotal characters in the drama: Herbert Coleridge, the first editor and grandson of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was something of a boy wonder and credited with the organization of the first army of volunteer readers and contributors (making the creation of the OED a truly democratic process), but then died at 27, only a year into the project. Next we have Frederick Furnivall, whose name strikes me as that of an evil professor from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School, and this real life character is not much different than that description. He is portrayed as “scandalous, irrepressible but entirely lovable”, a bit of a womanizer, and nearly responsible for the collapse of the entire project, yet faithfully devoted to its’ completion throughout.
Finally, towards the conclusion of Chapter Two, we are introduced to James Murray, the hero of our story, the man who saw it as “God’s will” that he complete the project with the utmost integrity and thoroughness, and on whom the largest portion of the book is devoted, explaining Murray’s tireless pursuit to complete the impossible task of creating a dictionary to include the meaning, root and literary occurrence of every single word used in the English language up to that point in history, the late 19th century.
After Winchester has given us the necessary background, along with a sense of the immensity of the project and the character of its’ principal creator and editor, he continues to introduce us to a revolving cast of noble gentleman with wonderful names (Fitzedward Hall, Axel Kock, Professor Johann Strom- OK, so I’m biased), child volunteers, poet-philosophers, learned Victorian-era women (the remarkably productive Thompson Twins), book collectors, world travelers, the man who could read a book upside down, philanthropists (Henry Huck Gibbs- who saves the project from disaster on more than one occasion) and noted authors (J.R.R. Tolkien included, along with his entry for the word “hobbit”). However, the most interesting of all is the amazing story of a man to whom Winchester has devoted an entirely separate book, entitled “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” William Chester Minor, a former United States Civil War survivor and Army Surgeon gone mad (convicted of murder, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and later was to cut off his own penis in a rage of self-loathing), submitted slips and quotations for the project from his prison cell, and was one of the most valued and appreciated contributors in Murray’s vast arsenal of contributors. I was fascinated by the seven page section devoted to Minor, and look forward to reading this related National Bestseller in the near future, and will not reveal any more of his riveting tale of redemption in this review.
While reading the book, I got the sense that Winchester wanted to challenge the reader to expand his personal vocabulary by throwing in such puzzling words as “pettifogging,” “desuetude,” “hagiographical,” and “prolixity.” This is not to mention the stories behind the bizarre words uncovered in the making of the dictionary, some of my personal favorites including “toe-rag,” “interrobang” (?!?! Is an interrobang) “Frenchified” (def. having French manners or qualities) “aardwolf,” “marzipan,” and “zxty,” the last word in the English language. Try using it in a sentence.
I believe the desired effect is to make the reader want to refer to his own personal copy of the OED, or even his abridged Webster’s (good luck finding some of the more obscure words though), throughout the text, just long enough to give your brain a break from the seriousness of it all. The most surprising aspects of the book to me were its comic and dramatic elements (who thought a book about the making of a dictionary could be so entertaining?), and Winchester’s ability to give meaning to the lives of the fascinating characters that surrounded the creation of the OED, which in the end, took 71 years to complete, numbered over 16,000 pages, and included no fewer than 414,825 headwords, and is by all accounts considered by most to be the perfect dictionary in existence.
Official Rating: 4.25/5.0
Audience: Not for the Casual Reader or Faint of Heart; Intended for History Buffs, Scholarly Types, Poets and Those of Us Interested in Using Big Words at the Dinner Table
Accompanying Music Selection: Andrew Bird’s latest release “Noble Beast”