Friday, July 1, 2011

A review of The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

The Meaning of Everything
by Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 260 pgs, October 2003
ISBN: 0198607024

Readers of Simon Winchester's 1998 best seller, The Professor and the Madman, may find his latest venture into lexicographical history somewhat disappointing. Though still fascinated by the eccentric character, by the minutia, and by the esoteric fact, that the less charitable might consider trivia, that so often enlivens the dryer pages of historical narrative, in this new book the historical superstructure seems inadequate to support the load. Not that his subject is wanting. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most monumental jobs of work undertaken in the nineteenth century.

The earlier book, concerned as it was with only an interesting sidebar to the great project, lent itself to the kind of popularizing history at which Winchester so excels. It is the kind of footnote that while certainly compelling can be satisfyingly treated without the rigors and intensity of the serious scholar. The history of the Oxford English Dictionary is another matter entirely.

The idea for what is today one of the indispensable tools for the anyone engaged in the study of the English language and its literature, indeed for any user of that language was born in 1857 out of discussions of three members of the Philological Society, a group formed to share among themselves scholarship in the field of language, about the need for a new more comprehensive English Dictionary, since it was felt that those available at the time were simply inadequate. There was Samuel Johnson, of course, but while his work was pioneering, it was also at times iconoclastic and self indulgent: the most famous example of this Johnsonian wilfulness, the definition of oats as a grain in England fed to horses and in Scotland fed to people. The three men, two of whom were to become the early editors of the new volume, Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet and first editor, Frederick Furnival, who took over the editorship after Coleridge's untimely death, and Richard Trench, wanted a book that would be a complete record of every word in the language with its every meaning, in short "a complete inventory of the language," that is each and every word without exception.

The method hit upon to accomplish this task was to employ volunteer readers who would read through a variety of texts making note of interesting words, the sentences in which they appeared, and the date of those sentences. These would be written on half sheets of paper and sent to the editor who could than compare the various usages and arrive at a definition, discover changes in meaning , and trace the history of the word and its meanings as it was actually used in the language. This was to be a dictionary, then based on historical principles - what did a word mean and when did it mean it. This should be confused with the question of what "it" might mean.

None of three, nor for that matter most of those who came after them, envisioned the enormity of the task, neither the length it would eventually run to, nor the time it would take to bring it to fruition, It was not until1928 long after they had all passed on, as had two of their successors, that the completed 12 volume result of their discussions was finally finished, and even then it was not complete. Supplements were to come and indeed more supplements are to come - language grows and the dictionary must grow along with it. What these men began was a task without end.

Winchester's account focuses on the characters involved, their different agendas, their bickering and infighting, their selfless devotion to their work. The dominant figure of the work is James Murray, a Scotsman who was the third editor of the work and oversaw the production of definitions from "a" into the "t's." It was he who took over a project that had become moribund, revitalized it, and set it solidly on the road to completion, the road to zyxt--the last word in the Oxford English dictionary - as Winchester never tires of telling the reader.

The problem with the book is that it takes a subject which by its very nature demands a definitive, scholarly approach, and deals with it as pop history. Where the reader looks for the kind of serious erudition that characterizes the dictionary itself, what one gets is something a bit more cavalier. Winchester is as much, if not more, interested in Furnivall's fondness for sculling and waitresses as he is in his editorial failures. He is more inclined to dwell on the pigeon holes in which the volunteer's slips with individual headwords and sentences in which they were used were kept than he is in describing the process by which actual definitions were arrived at. He is more likely to put the spotlight on the eccentric contributors, his erstwhile madman, Dr,. Minor and Fitzedward Hall, a reclusive editor of proofs, than he is to devote any considerable space to the more modern and presumably more conventional and certainly more significant editors like Craigie, under whose guidance the project was completed or Onions (whose name if nothing else one would have thought attraction enough for Winchester) who worked with him. Indeed the history of the dictionary after Murray is sketchy at best. It appears as though once Murray died, Winchester lost major interest.

It is a shame, because the book is eminently readable. The characters some whimsical and quixotic, some staid and portentous, are always carefully drawn with a flair for the dramatic.
The facts are there but they are never overwhelmed by the details, and there is always the little tid bit of gossip, sometimes in the text, sometimes in the footnote to add spice to the main dish. Thus we are told that Coleridge the first editor proscribed labored and unused puns like hespitle
and shepistle, but that herstory was included in 1970. Then there is a footnote that describes a dream of James Murray in which he envisions Samuel Johnson's reaction to the new dictionary:
Boswell seemingly asked the Great Cham, "What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years' time a bigger and better dictionary than yours wouls be compiled by a Whig?" Johnson merely grunted. "A Dissenter?" Johnson shifted, a little uneasily, in his chair. "A Scotsman?" Johnson started, and began to speak: "Sir. . ." But Boswell persisted. "And that the University of Oxford would publish it?" "Sir" roared Johnson, unable to contain himself, "In order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent." Safe to say the dream was apocryphal, the illustration as much of James Murray's refreshingly sportive attitude - at times - to his job.

Apocrypha it may be, but to paraphrase Johnson from another context, apocrypha so endearing who could wish away. The book is filled with such, one could only wish for something more substantial to hold them together.

The Oxford English Dictionary deserves something more. It is not that what Winchester had done is bad, it is simply not enough,

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