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Paperback The Meaning of Everything (The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary) Book

ISBN: 0965499634

ISBN13: 9780965499637

The Meaning of Everything (The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary)

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Book Overview

From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman , The Map That Changed the World , and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

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By definition, a story superbly and wittily told

Of the fifty or so books I've read this past year, Simon Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything" has been my favorite. Winchester essentially begins by giving the reader a solid platform regarding the origins of English vocabulary and then continues with one of the most incredible stories...the seventy-one year compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary.This could have been a rather dry display but Winchester's wit and warmth are evident everywhere. From Herbert Coleridge through Frank Furnivall to James Murray and the thousands of people who contributed to the OED, this is a story of dedication and sacrifice. How many times the project could have been scrapped only to be saved by fated interfacing and intervention. This may indeed have been the first worldwide project and one gets the picture of a giant ant colony moving about to service the queen.Just as important, the author colorfully depicts the late Victorian era (the 1880s and 1890s) and shows how that was directly connected in many cases to the work of the OED's editors and sub-editors. Through it all, through all the personal clashes, work slowdowns, doubts about the progress of the dictionary, the work went on. And on. The critical turning point was James Murray's refusal to abandon the principles of his efforts because it was felt on more than one occasion that the work was going along at a slower than necessary pace. Thanks largely to Murray, the OED is the defining (pardon the double entendre) dictionary of the English language.Winchester closes his wonderful book by comparing how much more easy the work is today than how it was one hundred years ago as the updates and revisions continue. He correctly points out that because of the expanding nature of English dictionaries become out of date as soon as they are printed. This may be a sobering thought to lexicographers (and their publishers!) but the loftier thought is the one of language expansion. I highly recommend this book not only for its remarkable content but for the style in which Simon Winchester has delivered it.

It's about people, not words

This is a wonderful history of the OED - why it was started, its development over a long period, and most of all about the editors who made it. There's only a little about the supplements and editions after the first, but that's no matter. The focus of the book is on the editors, and especially their eccentricities, and the difficulties put in their way by the sponsors of the dictionary, Oxford itself and its Press, by their collaborators, and by the language itself.Incidental to the story, but at least as interesting, is something of the process of making a historical dictionary, and the development of English over the last 2500 years.Brilliantly written, although some anecdotes are repeated which makes me think that Winchester was in a bit of a hurry.

Love's Labors Last

Oddly enough, I first became fascinated by words and their meanings many moons ago when I learned the difference between etymology and entymology (and had to use the "trick" of remembering that, because it contained an "n", as did the word insect, entymology was the word which meant the study of insects, and etymology was the word that defined the study of the history and development of words). The world, thank goodness, is full of people who love words and language, and Simon Winchester is one of those people. His enthusiasm comes through on every page of this wonderful book. One gets the impression that Mr. Winchester, if he possessed a time machine, would happily go back to, say, 1880, and be one of the numerous and unsung readers that sent in "slips" to the editors of the "great dictionary project," to show the various historical usages of words. As Mr. Winchester points out, this was a labor of love by the few who were paid, and by the many who were unpaid. The man who was mainly responsible for the form the dictionary assumed, its thoroughness and layout, and who guided the great project from when he signed a formal contract in March 1879, up until his death in 1915, was James Murray. (The 1879 contract, by the way, specified that the project would be completed within 10 years. It wasn't. The OED wasn't completed until 1928, 13 years after Murray's death.) Murray was an amazing man. Although he had very little formal education, he was intellectually formidable - being familiar with over 20 languages. As Mr. Winchester points out, though, Victorian England seemed to produce an inordinate number of such people - and quite a few of them contributed to the creation of the dictionary. A great deal of the fun of this book comes from learning about the personalities of some of these people. Murray's predecessor, Frederick Furnivall, was a brilliant man, but he lacked staying power and lost interest in the project - leaving things in a muddle. (When Murray took over he had to try to track down millions of the vital "usage slips" that were scattered all over the place - Furnivall had some and readers all over England, Europe and North America had others. There were sacks and sacks of crumbling, moldy, wet, and sometimes illegible slips. One sack had a dead rat in it. Another sack had a family of mice living quite happily amongst all that paper, which was perfect "nesting material.") Unfortunately for the dictionary, Furnivall seemed to be more interested in women. He dumped his wife and, at the age of 58, took up with his 21 year old secretary. He was also very interested in sculling, and managed to combine his two favorite interests by frequenting the local teashop and gathering up as many pretty waitresses as he could, and taking them out on the river to teach them the joys of sculling. Another interesting man was Henry Bradley, who became joint senior editor in 1896. He had taught himself Russian in 14 days, and had the uncanny ability to read a

The Making of a Gargantuan Classic

In a world of uncertainties, there is at least one human effort we can count on. For 75 years, if you have needed to know about an English word, you could turn to the _Oxford English Dictionary_ and you could expect enlightenment. You could know you were getting the authoritative low-down on any word you might come across, and you could not only find its definition, but its history of use given in quotations dating from its very first known appearance in print. For word fans, using the _OED_ is a joy, and every turn of the pages in its monumental volumes registers new affection and admiration for an unequalled intellectual accomplishment. Five years ago, Simon Winchester wrote _The Professor and the Madman_, an inspiring account of an inmate of an asylum who helped compile the _OED_'s words. It was a footnote to the _OED_'s larger history, and now, in _The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary_ (Oxford University Press), Winchester has given that history with the same humane and appreciative tone of his first book on the subject. Anyone who uses English ought to know the _OED_, and anyone who loves the _OED_ will find this book fascinating.Winchester gives a fine brief guide to the history of our language, and shows that by the Victorian age, philologists felt a comprehensive dictionary was needed. In 1842, the Philological Society settled on a proposal of a gargantuan dictionary, one that would have old words and new, one that would have every word and every meaning for that word. There was certainly something of power in such a scheme; great men and great ambitions would push the influence of English throughout the Empire, nay, the world, and increase the influence of Britain and her church. The story of the _OED_ is inextricably the story of the chief editor for the original edition, James Augustus Henry Murray. He was the son of a Scottish linen draper, and after a rural upbringing, he had to leave school at 14 because of poverty. However, by that time, he had developed precocious interests in geology, astronomy, archeology, and plenty of other fields, especially languages. He became a teacher at a boys' school in London, but in 1879, he was appointed editor of the dictionary project. Murray was not just a lexicographic and organizational genius, however, but a cheerful and persistent diplomat, who was adept at dealing with difficult personalities and making friends with those who were originally nuisances. He was also a family man whose very happy marriage produced eleven remarkable children. The children never had pocket money but by earning it in sorting dictionary slips. One wrote, "Hours & hours of our childhood were spent in this useful occupation. The motive actuating us was purely mercenary." One unforeseen result of this upbringing is that when the crossword puzzle craze came on, all the Murray children were brilliant at them.Murray himself died in 1905 and did not live to see the compl

A Story of Flawed People Who Together, Made A Masterpiece

The Oxford English Dictionary is an unrivaled monument to the history, beauty and complexity of the English language. The story of the men and women who made this marvelous work makes for compellling reading, especially in the hands of such a skilled storyteller as Simon Winchester."The Professor and the Madman," Winchester's first best-seller, was the story of Dr. W.C. Minor, an American who had gone to England in what was a vain hope of regaining his sanity. Instead, he committed a senseless murder, and was imprisoned in an asylum for life. Minor found redemption in his otherwise ruined life by devoting decades of service as a volunteer reader/researcher for the OED. In his introduction to this volume, Winchester explains that an editor at the Oxford University Press suggested that since he had written a footnote to the story of the great enterprise, he might want to undertake the main story. Fortunately for us, he took up the suggestion with enthusiasm.The pace of the narrative never falters in its entire 250 pages. The opening chapter provides a brief overview of the evolution of English and of previous efforts to compile a truly comprehensive dictionary of the language--and why all fell short of that lofty goal.What became the OED enterprise had its origins in the late 1850s, but the first completed dictionary pages did not see the light of day until the early 1880s. Why the project was almost stillborn, how it survived deaths, disorganization, lack of funds and innumerable other setbacks--all of this is brought vividly to life in Winchester's tale. Even when the great editor James Murray took the helm and the project finally emerged from chaos, it still faced obstaces, especially from those who would have sacraficed quality in order to produce a swifter, but less authoratative, final product.Today, the third edition of the OED is in preparation by a staff working in modern offices, making use of all the tools of twenty-first century information technology. The contrast to the conditions facing makers of the original OED, laboring by hand, sorting tens of thousands of slips of paper into pigenhole slots in an ugly, dank corrugated tin shed (grandly named the "Scriptorium" by Murray) is startling, and makes their achievement all the more amazing--and grand.Dr. Minor makes a brief appearance in the story, along with some of the other unusual and exemplary volunteer contributors from around the world who combed nearly 800 years of English literature to give the OED its impressive depth. While none of the other's stories may be quite as extreme as Minor's, it's clear that for many, their involvement in this great cause (with no pay and little recognition) also gave depth and meaning to their lives.It's the vivid, human qualities that Winchester illuminates so well make this a great that you won't want to miss.
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