The Meaning of Everything: The story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Wincheste

The story behind the Big Dic (as close friends like to call it)
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The dictionary of the Dutch language was started in 1851 and only completed in 1998, 147 years later. A 19th-century attempt to fix the Swedish tongue between hard covers has never been finished, and is currently stuck on the letter S. Compared with these, the length of time it took to produce that crowning work of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary - 71 years from its inception in 1857 to publication in 12 volumes under its original title, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, in 1928 - doesn't seem excessive.

The story behind the Big Dic, as it was sometimes called by those who knew it well, is in many ways a typically Victorian one, of unrivalled ambition coupled with unflinching confidence in a vast scheme, largely carried out by a team of gifted amateurs. It's these oddball characters who drive the narrative of Simon Winchester's history of the world's greatest dictionary, providing it with charm, eccentricity and - a surprise for those who doubt that lexicography can ever be anything but dryasdust - readability.

At their centre is a grinning magus in a long white beard: James Murray, a draper's son from the Borders, and a bank clerk turned Mill Hill schoolmaster and philologist, who became the saviour of the enterprise after his appointment as the dictionary's editor in 1879. The idea for an English dictionary, which would not only offer definitions of every known word in the language, but also provide detailed etymologies for each one, had been first taken up two decades earlier after a speech to a meeting of Philological Society at the London Library by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench. Trench had pointed out the deficiencies of current dictionaries, and had proposed a new undertaking which would rely on the assistance of hundreds of volunteers, who would be encouraged to compile word-lists on slips of paper of all that they read and look specifically for words which interested the dictionary team.

Six million slips from this army of readers arrived during the tenure of the new dictionary's first editor, Herbert Coleridge, a grandson of the poet. However, Coleridge died from a chill aged 31 after only two years at work, when he wasn't even halfway through looking at the quotations of words beginning with A (his famous last words, "I must begin Sanskrit tomorrow", sadly prove to be apocryphal). His successor, Frederick Furnivall, was a man of almighty energy, but also a ditherer who unfortunately preferred taking out a scull on the Thames with the Hammersmith Ladies' Club to more disciplined work, struggling through the tons of dictionary material. Under him the enterprise began to die.

One of Murray's first jobs would be to locate slips for certain letters of the alphabet that had gone missing. Those for H were found in the Tuscan hills where they had been taken by one volunteer who then found his eyesight was too poor to work on them. The slips for Pa turned up in a stable in County Cavan, somewhat the worse for wear, having been used as spills for lighting fires.

Murray's Scriptorium, or Scrippy, a corrugated-iron shed built in the grounds of Mill Hill School, and then rebuilt in his garden in the Banbury Road when Murray gave up teaching and moved to Oxford, became the centre of the enterprise. The delegates of Oxford University Press were at times dismayed by the dictionary's faltering progress. In 1884, the first part (A-Ant) was published, and Murray estimated that the whole might be complete in 12 years. In fact Murray lived to see the letter T almost completed at the time of his death in 1915.

Some 800 volunteers had contributed "to the greatest enterprise of its kind", as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called it on publication day in 1928, and many didn't live to see the completed edition. The most curious of this band, the surgeon and homicidal maniac William Chester Minor, who worked tirelessly for the dictionary for 21 years from his cell at Broadmoor before succumbing to depression and cutting off his penis, was the subject of Simon Winchester's runaway bestseller of 1998, The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Parts of The Meaning of Everything are a slightly more detailed retelling of the earlier book. Winchester manages to kick life into what is at times unpromising material, though he occasionally resorts to caricature (a bad case of this is his buffoonish portrayal of Benjamin Jowett).

An epilogue looks ahead to the revised edition of the OED, which is vaguely promised for sometime early this century. When it is published, it may include a million defined words and run to as many as 40 volumes. Can the environment sustain the sizeable acreage of woodland required for each printing, or will Murray turn in his grave as the OED is made available only on-line?