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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the…

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003)

by Simon Winchester

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,615553,802 (3.84)97
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.… (more)
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    Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos (John_Vaughan)
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    The gentle art of lexicography as pursued and experienced by an addict by Eric Partridge (KayCliff)
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    The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.) by Simon Winchester (PuddinTame)
    PuddinTame: Two accounts of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Meaning of Everything is a history of how the dictionary was created. The Professor and the Madman is focussed on a peculiar story: a detailed acccount of the man who contributed the most entries to the Oxford English Dictionary, while living in the Broadmoor Asylum (near Crawthorne) for the Criminally Insane.… (more)
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    Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: The history of the (printed) word
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» See also 97 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 55 (next | show all)
Was not there to finish it but I love his writing.
( )
  leebill | Apr 30, 2020 |
A rather stuffy, bland, yet mildly interesting history of the OED. The reciting of facts and stories comes across as somewhat mechanical and uninspired, but still readable. Especially at night before bed. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
Another winner from Simon Winchester: this is an in-depth look at the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and in common with his other books, it's written in a pleasingly chatty style with a wealth of amusing footnotes. In many cases, the footnotes can be more interesting that the material to which it's appended! Which is no insult to the main body of the text, since you get a very good idea of the trials and tribulations involved in this landmark project. Unlike Erik Larson, Winchester spices his books with liberal doses of illustrations, and in these cases, they're quite illuminating, especially the "quotation slips" and the photographs. Highly recommended. (Amusingly, this edition is from the Oxford University Press.) ( )
  EricCostello | Oct 5, 2019 |
Less a history and more a celebration of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary with a roll call to recognize the massive number of people who spent decades of their lives devoted to its creation. Unfortunately the long lists of names doesn’t make for fine listening to the audiobook. I probably would have preferred the book. It’s a good read for lovers of words who would like to honor those undertaking this immense task. ( )
  KarenMonsen | Aug 6, 2019 |
Well this one went downhill.

I recommend this book at all solely for its first chapter giving a succinct and entertaining essay on the history of the English language, that's what hooked me into it. I suggest you read that and then put the book back on the store/library shelf. It's not worth taking home.

This book is kind of a sham. The back cover blurb mentions how this book covers such interesting tidbits such as 'bondmaid' being accidentally left out of the first edition, and how words like monkey and marzipan gave the writers so much trouble--but, get this--that's all the book says.

When Winchester reaches that part of the book, he essentially says: "'bondmaid' got left out of the first edition because its slips were lost and forgotten about" and moves on. OK, I got that from the back cover, dude. I've been under the impression that back-cover teasers were supposed to be, you know, teasers.

This book has loads of bits like that, its not so much a history as a collection of anecdotes. Winchester puts in little facts about the major players involved, Furnivall was a womanizer, Murray's kids were overachievers, some other guy liked to swim nude. Nothing really adds up the way it should.

Winchester makes a lot of inferences and statements like "this is what happened, but this is what I like to think is what happened." For instance, referencing the humor that was sometimes put into the dictionary, he points out a definition written by Murray in the 1890s for abbreviator: "An officer of the court of Rome, appointed...to draw up the Pope's briefs." Oh my, how droll. Except Winchester mentions that 'briefs' did not become a term for underwear until 1933. Winchester concedes that nothing untoward was intended, but he "like[s] to wonder." That's not your job, man.

I learned a lot about the making of the O.E.D., yes, but Winchester either didn't have enough proper information or he felt he had to cut it down to the bone to make it marketable--which is ironic considering that this is about one of the most noncommercial of achievements. He's written a whole other book on this subject, focusing on an inmate of an insane asylum who contributed something like 12,000 plus quotations to the dictionary, who had a brief (oh that word again, IT CAN MEAN UNDERWEAR HOHO HAHA) mention in this book. But there are scores of names that he mentions, but doesn't bother to follow up on other than saying little information is readily available. In keeping with his example, I like to think he was just too lazy to follow through on his research. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 55 (next | show all)
Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling
Simon Winchester. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. $14.95. 298pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19-881439-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
The front matter of this book is highly engaging as I have spent a few minutes reading it before I could pull away to begin writing. While I was searching for a specific date when the Oxford English Dictionary was first put together, I learned about the various types of international dictionaries that have defined their times in the background. This curious conclusion stands out: “neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day – Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Jonson – had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that was first noticed by name in the late 15th century”, but only appeared as a book in 1538, “a dictionary”, edited by Sir Thomas Elyot (20). I have been thinking about problems related to this because many attribution studies question if “Shakespeare’s” authorial signature can be deduced from spellings such as “them” versus “‘em” or the utilization of strange words that “Shakespeare” invented or that do not appear in texts from this period by other authors. The reason Renaissance literature is particularly difficult for modern readers to comprehend is because of its spelling irregularities and strange varieties of meanings applied even to the same words. This irregularity persisted in part for at least a century beyond “Shakespeare’s” time as the debate was renewed by the authors in the “Daniel Defoe” circle, who argued for a language Academy like the one in France to police the language and keep it regulated and standard. They did not win this battle and there are still many irregular oddities in the English language. But the battle over the “dictionary” was won, and this tool allows modern writers to be able to figure out precisely what literary critics are saying. It is difficult to comprehend some “post-structuralism” or “formalist” theories because critics in these fields attempt to cloud the readers’ attention by the utilization of an extraordinary quantity of rare words, but if one looks up every one of them, the nonsense can be fully deciphered thanks to the precision and consistency of modern dictionaries. In other words, the study presented here of this particular dictionary really covers in part all of these sub-questions of authorship, individuality, and standardization.
Since I agree the construction of this dictionary was a grand endeavor, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to commence this book’s blurb thus: “‘The greatest enterprise of its kind in history,’ was the verdict of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin in June 1928 when The Oxford English Dictionary was finally published. With its 15,490 pages and nearly two million quotations, it was indeed a monumental achievement”. This history covers the “hundreds” of “people” who achieved this task and the logical and philosophic problems they faced as they attempted “to catalogue the English language in its entirety.” The biographies covered include “Frederick Furnivall, cheerful promoter of an all-female sculling crew, to James Murray, self-educated son of a draper, who spent half a century guiding the project towards fruition.” The note ends with the mysterious question for readers to anticipate an answer to: “why Tolkien found it so hard to define ‘walrus’.”
There are engaging surprises throughout. For example, Oxford University Press left the design of the dictionary to its “printers” because as was explained in The Periodical: “‘The variety of type used, the many languages involved, and the multiplication of ‘arbitraries’ have demanded technical knowledge and minute accuracy to an extent probably unequalled in any other work’” (120-1).
The “Epilogue” includes some examples of complex type and design from Robert Cawdrey’s early attempt at the dictionary in the Table Alphabetical (1604) as well as from the Samuel Johnson Dictionary of the English Language (1755) (240). The latter is most commonly referred to when the “first” English dictionary is mentioned.
Another revealing section describes the difficult living and working arrangements early makes of the Oxford dictionary faced: “There was only just enough room for the eleven Murrays, let alone for the assistants – eight of them, eventually – who were required for the project”. The tightness of the quarters led them to build a “new Scriptorium”, and this turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare due to the aesthetic shortfalls of the simple structure required that clashed with the more delicate architecture of the neighborhood (164). This description is explained by the picture of a monastic Murray with a long beard, in all black and amidst a room covered on all sides with sheets and books (165).
Those who are interested in publishing and want to imagine the most difficult publishing project that can be attempted will find what they seek in these pages. Too many youths complain about the tediousness of reading the dictionary, but without dictionaries it would be far more tedious to figure out what other writers are trying to say. Thus, this book is essential for all public and educational libraries in case researchers or students want to gain an appreciation for the labor involved in building a language.
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 organisation 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.'' . . .

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Winchester, Simonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Assersohn, SandraPicture Researchsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ettlinger, MarionAuthor photographsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winchester, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In Memory of Jenny McMorris
A great friend of the OED
And of us all.
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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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Acknowledgements   p.ix
List of illustrations   p.xii
Prologue   p.xv

1. Taking the Measure of It All   p.1

2. The Construction of the Pigeon-Holes   p.46

3. The General Officer Commanding   p.72

4. Battling with the Undertow   p.97

5. Pushing through the Untrodden Forest   p.134

6. So Heavily Goes the Chariot   p.160

7. The Hermit and the Murderer
-and Hereward Thimbleby Price   p.186

8. From Take to Turn-down
-and then, Triumphal Valediction   p.216

Epilogue: And Always Beginning Again   p.238

Bibliography and Further Reading   p.251

Index   p.253

Picture Acknowledgements   p.260

(Table of Contents taken from Oxford, 2003)
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