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The Meaning of Everything by Simon…

The Meaning of Everything (2003)

by Simon Winchester

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You'd think, after reading The Professor and the Madman, that there wouldn't be an entire book's worth of additional material about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, but you would be wrong. I never gave much thought to how a dictionary is compiled before, but it's actually quite involved. I also enjoyed some of the politics behind it - how do you decide which slang/profanity to include, if any? How do you know you have the oldest usage of a word in that context? Very interesting. ( )
  melydia | Oct 23, 2015 |
Audiobook has some jarring discordant transition sounds used to signal the beginnings of some sections.
  rakerman | Sep 15, 2015 |
Steampunk erudition. ( )
  themulhern | Nov 30, 2014 |
The Professor and the Madman (called the Surgeon of Crowthorne in England) gave some exposure to the gargantuan task involved in preparing the Oxford English Dictionary but this book really takes the lid off. Having grown up with ready access to dictionaries I never really thought about how life would be without them. I certainly never thought about how one would go about the task of preparing one virtually from scratch. The amount ot time it took to publish the first installment (A to Ant.) from the date a comprehensive dictionary was first proposed was 27 years. The first installment appeared in 1884 but the dictionary in its entirety was not available until 1928. James A. H. Murray who was the editor of that first fascicle (as the installments were called) did not live to see the dictionary completed, nor did many of the other people involved in the task. The infamous Surgeon of Crowthorne died back in the US thanks to efforts by James Murray. One printer, James Gilbert, worked on printing the entire dictionary--certainly a life's work.

Winchester does a good job of portraying the characters involved in this task. James Murray, in particular, comes to life on these pages. He also manages to convey the enormity of the task without resorting to a dull recitation of dates and figures. My one quibble with his writing is his habit of writing sentences with many phrases. More than once I had to re-read something in order to figure out how the ending fit with the beginning. For that reason I have downgraded the rating from 8 to 7.

Still, if you have a fascination for words, you will find this book enjoyable. ( )
  gypsysmom | Nov 13, 2014 |
The Meaning of Everything covers the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, from the proposal in 1857 to the Philological Society, to the publication of the first fascicle in 1884, to the last volume of the original edition in 1928, with an epilogue touching on the updates that the OED was working on when the book was published, in 2003. There were many people who worked on the dictionary, so there are many small biographies tucked into the main story. Winchester scatters humorous anecdotes around in footnotes (e.g. "He was powerfully attracted to rough, strong, dirty women, and he married his own servant, Hannah Cullick, delighting in her covering herself with dirt and soot, as, perfectly willingly, she cleaned the household chimneys entirely naked." [p. 63]) and often refers to people by their eccentricities, rather than their role with the dictionary (an early assistant turns out to be a kleptomaniac, which Winchester mentions several times).

At the end, Winchester writes that "this story is not supposed to be overtly hagiographical" [p. 235], which is a good summary. At times it is difficult to discern whether he is echoing that turn of the century enthusiasm for the Forward March of Progress! or whether he himself is just really enthusiastic about the subject. Perhaps both are true. The book is certainly reverential, regardless of its supposed intent to not be overtly hagiographical. ( )
  bexaplex | Nov 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
Simon Winchester has previously written a detailed account of one of the foremost contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, in The surgeon of Crowthorne (OUP, 1988). He writes here that that book was 'essentially a footnote to history', and that in The meaning of
everything he is ^writing the history itself. He duly covers in turn the growth of the English language from the first settlers here; early dictionaries; the establishment of the Unregistered Words Committee; the decision to produce 'an inventory of all known English words'
giving 'a full-length illustrated biography of every word', its date of birth and 'a register of the ways in which it grew and evolved and changed itself and its meaning over the years'; the appointment of OED staff and establishment of premises, equipment and methods; 'the small army of volunteer readers' who sent in quotation slips, the product of 'reading and scanning and scouring all literature - all journals, magazines, papers, illuminated monastic treatises, and
volumes of written and printed publicly accessible works'; the organization of these; eventual, serial publication ('the longest sensational serial ever written', Arnold Bennett called it) and its
reception; subsequent versions: supplements, micrograph, computerization, the second, 20-volume edition; the stunning statistics
(414,825 headwords; 1,827,306 illustrative quotations; 15,490 pages; 227,779,589 letters and numbers; 178 miles of type, in the first full edition of 1928).
added by KayCliff | editThe Indexer, Hazel K. Bell (Aug 3, 2009)
IN 1875, more than 15 years after the Philological Society of London had set out to assemble a new English dictionary, the incumbent editor, Frederick Furnivall, acknowledged that he had simply bogged down. New blood was needed. A member of the society came across a 10-year-old application for employment in the British Museum Library. The applicant was one James Murray, son of a linen draper, sometime bank clerk, now 38 years old and seeking extra work to supplement his meager earnings from the Mill Hill School, where he was teaching schoolboys while raising his own 11 children.

The library hadn't hired him -- perhaps because he didn't have a college degree. We get from his application an idea of the range and extent of linguistic learning of a single, modest, semiemployed polymath in mid-19th-century Britain. Murray would be qualified, Furnivall decided, to play a part in the realization of the mind-bending new dictionary. He sent around to his confederates copies of the application letter to the library.

''I possess,'' the schoolteacher had written straightforwardly, ''that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge'' of any language ''only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius.'' . . .

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Winchester, Simonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Winchester, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The culminating celebrations of what was to be called 'the greatest enterprise of its kind in history' took place in 1928 -- and on Wednesday 6 June of that year, the date when the majestic phrase was first spoken, in England it was Derby Day.
We do not really know why so many people gave so much of their time for so little apparent reward. And this is the abiding and most marvellous mystery of the enormously democratic process that was the Dictionary -- that hundreds upon hundreds of people, for motives known and unknown, for reasons both stated and left unsaid, helped to chronicle the immense complexities of the language that was their own, and that they dedicated in many cases... years upon years of labour to a project of which they all, buoyed by some set of unfathomable and optimistic notions, insisted on becoming a part.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0198607024, Hardcover)

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 house, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy"--and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from "the irredeemably famous" Samuel Johnson to the "short, pale, smug and boastful" schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making--how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated--and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium--the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it--and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption.
The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project--a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:36 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Traces the history of the Oxford English Dictionary from its earliest inception through its long path to completion, describes the process of creating a dictionary, and includes anecdotes about its creators and their work.

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