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The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester
The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

Cowboys and indexes in the war of words

Our most obvious Victorian inheritances are the bridges and buildings of that engineering-obsessed age. Yet arguably none is as magnificent or famous as another kind of legacy: the Oxford English Dictionary, the world's most successful lexical enterprise, about which Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything provides a fascinating history.

Though it begins with a slightly cloying kind of pop-history approach ("all England... languished that day in the careless blue-skies rapture of early summer..."), Winchester's story soon takes hold - unsurprisingly perhaps, considering the rich material he has to work with. Originally proposed as a corrective to the failings of existing dictionaries, the new dictionary project was slow to get off the ground, hampered by a dismayingly rapid turnover in editors.

The first was Richard Chevenix Trench, a sombre curate who as a young man had gone to Spain to fight on the side of the insurrectionist José Torrijos, apparently the sole impulsive act of his life. It was Trench whose talk to the Philological Society in 1857 set in motion the plan for a new dictionary, but he found it impossible to combine his new lexical responsibilities with his clerical obligations, so the torch was passed to Herbert Coleridge. The grandson of the poet, Coleridge was learned but sickly, and died after working on the project for only one year.

His successor Frederick James Furnivall was also learned but deeply eccentric. Passionate about sculling and young women, he was happiest when the pursuit of both could be combined. He was also sufficiently self-aware to recognise his limitations as a manager - and he soon began to look for a replacement.

By now, 20 years had passed with little to show, but the arrival of James Murray as editor and the sponsorship of Oxford University Press suddenly made the project spring to life. Not that it was ever plain sailing. From the beginning, the time the project would take was continually underestimated. When Oxford formally took it on in 1878, the finished dictionary was expected to total 7,000 pages and to take 10 years to complete; in the event, the first edition consisted of 16,000 pages, and was compiled in 54 years.

Particularly during the early years, the unanticipated slowness of the work led to such financial worry that on at least one occasion it looked as if the project would be scrapped. According to Winchester, the dictionary's future was only made secure in the Diamond Jubilee year of 1897, when Queen Victoria accepted the dedication of the volume containing the letters D and E. After such an imprimatur, "it would have been unthinkable to stop".

Much of this story has been told before, most notably in Elizabeth Murray's excellent account of her grandfather and the OED, Caught in the Web of Words. Wisely, Winchester focuses in particular on the early non-Murray years of the project, though he is interesting about the subsequent development of the dictionary.

He explains the essentially non-prescriptive nature of the OED, since it exists to describe and report on the history of the language rather than set down rules for its use. Yet he also recognises that the OED inevitably contains some prescriptive quality, since it decides what should be included as English words in its pages and stipulates how these words should be spelled - both of which, as any viewer of Countdown can attest, are much-needed acts of arbitration.

Winchester shows too how, from the growing bank of quotations, the various definitions and sub-definitions of words were teased out. He is particularly entertaining when describing the vast and quirky brigade of unpaid readers who supplied the material for the dictionary's famous "slips".

There are inevitably a few gaps he might have filled: such as how etymologies, a key feature of the dictionary, are constructed. I wish, too, that he had more to say about recent developments, in particular the digitisation of the text when the original edition, original supplement, and later supplements (four volumes published from 1972 to1986) were amalgamated.

Storage in database form allowed the creation of an electronic title (first a CD-Rom and now an online version) and the answers to questions - How many words in English are of Arabic origin? How many adverbs are there in the language? - which, if not precisely pressing, were none the less formerly impractical to answer.

Oddly, perhaps the most important 20th-century development was the strictly commercial decision in the 1970s to produce a compact version of the dictionary. Its pages were reproduced in miniature to fit into two volumes accompanied by a (necessary) magnifying glass. A work previously affordable only by libraries and wealthy individuals could now be purchased at minimal cost. (America's Book of the Month Club even offered it for free as an inducement to join.)

The effect was to make the OED that most unscholarly thing - a brand. This in turn established a sizeable readership for works such as Winchester's bestselling The Surgeon of Crowthorne, an account of an early contributor to the OED who happened to be a homicidal lunatic, and for this more recondite but equally pleasurable account of the dictionary itself.

Like Winchester's book, Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English has one protagonist. It is an informal but informative history of the English language, and largely succeeds in its self-proclaimed task of portraying the language as an "adventure". This is a personal view, for Bragg happily intrudes his own experiences as a boy growing up in Cumbria into his discussions of English dialects, accents and class, and he treats the language itself as he would a character in a novel.

Social and political history accompany the philology throughout. This approach works especially well in Bragg's discussion of the early language, where he is particularly interesting about the influence of Norse (traces of which persist to this day in the North of England), and on how the creative confluence of Old English and French after 1066 resulted in a richer, subtler language.

In the more modern period, the evolution of the language is largely seen through authors - Burns, Wordsworth, Keats and Austen. Here the book flags a little, the commentary being neither literary criticism nor thorough enough philology. Similarly, the international chapters on the English of India, Australia and the West Indies seem perfunctory, almost skimpy, as if necessary counterparts to the television series with which this book coincides.

On American English as it evolved, Bragg is excellent, particularly on the disparate influence that cowboys, liquor and gambling had on American vernacular. He has a novelist's eye for the illuminating vignette: more than half the slaves sent to America arrived in South Carolina's Sullivan's Island, "the Ellis Island of black America". And Samuel Clemens's pen name, Mark Twain, came from a Mississippi river boatman's cry signalling two fathoms.

With no pretensions to academic scholarship (Bragg seeks only the status of "permitted amateur"), The Adventure of English is nonetheless a largely sound chronicle. Though perhaps too folksy for some (and insufficiently detailed for the serious student of the language), it is always readable, often thought-provoking, and consistently entertaining. The colour illustrations are a particularly striking feature of the book.

Andrew Rosenheim's novel 'Stillriver' will be published by Hutchinson in March 2004

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