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The Word Detective: Searching for the…

The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford…

by John Simpson

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I suppose this is as good a review as any to come clean about my addiction to lexicography.

Like a lot of people, I first experimented at university. It began with an obsession over obscure words – I would roll a fat copy of Ulysses, digging out anastomosis, boustrephodon or farraginous, or cook up some Anthony Burgess in search of furfur, hallux, ictal or margaric. Before I knew it, I was mainlining Will Self, Guy Davenport and Thomas Pynchon, the highs of sequipedalianism (as I would doubtless then have called it) pulling me through even the most turgid of plots.

But the adolescent appeal of showy, ten-dollar terms like dolichophallic or eutripsia soon wanes. The real thrill, I soon worked out, is in unpicking the definitions of seemingly-familiar words. Reading Spenser was a watershed. Consider a line like Shortly unto the wastefull woods she came, / Whereas she found the Goddesse with her crew. At first glance there’s nothing obvious that you need to look up. But wait – wasteful here clearly doesn’t mean what is usually means, which is to do with wasting resources. Sure enough, checking a good dictionary will show that an earlier meaning is ‘uninhabited, desolate’: that’s obviously what Spenser had in mind.

Another example from The Faerie Queene: He lookt askew with his mistrustfull eyes, / And nicely trode, as thornes lay in his way. Most people would read this without difficulty, but how many would grasp that nicely means ‘carefully, fastidiously’? Or that when he talks about someone being cherished, he means that they’re being cheered up? Or that when someone mainly does something, it means they are doing it forcefully or vigorously? That preventing something means outdoing it?

This was a whole new obsession. It changed the way I read books completely. Once you’re tuned in to an older text, you start to realise that in almost every sentence there’s a common word that ‘feels’ somehow wrong, and usually this is because its meaning has shifted over time, either subtly or quite dramatically. It was for predominantly linguistic reasons that I first read Robert Burton, Folio's translation of Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Malory, Chaucer, or Beowulf. Come for the archaic verb inflections, stay for the artistry.

To describe all this, I got involved with the website Wiktionary, the dictionary counterpart to Wikipedia. It is terrifying to think of how many hours I have poured into that bloody site. (My wife once asked pointedly if I had worked on the definition of divorce.) I see that since I joined in 2005, I’ve edited more than 40,000 entries there and created well over 12,000 new ones. And the really involving, rewarding work was never the ‘weird’ words but the common ones – like of.

But that's just a hobby. John Simpson has made a living out of this kind of investigation into how words are used, how their meaning changes, and how quickly a dictionary needs to work to keep up. It was under his stewardship that the Oxford English Dictionary launched its incredible, fully-revised third edition, which began appearing in 2000 and is currently perhaps one-third of the way through, with more updates appearing online every quarter. It is truly vast, and will probably never appear in print, for ecological reasons if nothing else.

The OED is certainly now the best dictionary of any language in the world. In fact browsing the new entries convinces you of what a gigantic feat of scholarship it is – and that's because, as Simpson illustrates in this memoir, lexicography is above all a matter of deep and thorough archival research. The OED bases all of its definitions on citation evidence – it gathers together a load of examples of a word in use, and then tries to summarise what exactly it means in context. The citations are there in the entry so you can see for yourself. (This is in contrast to some other dictionaries, which first decide what a word means or should mean, and then conclude that people who use it differently are using it ‘wrong’.) So digging out and collating these historical examples is an enormous undertaking (and one of the many things that has been revolutionised by the internet).

This is particularly important with new words, whose eligibility for inclusion is a common point of contention for lexicographers (and their critics). The OED has an informal rule that a word should be attested over ten years before it can go in, to weed out flash-in-the-pan coinages. But with the online updates, this still allows for a dictionary that's extremely up-to-date – this year alone, amid the hundreds of older and more technical inclusions, the OED has added entries for things like glamping, bro-hug, sideboob and YOLO.

This is turning into an unwanted essay on why the OED is the greatest ‘book’ the world has ever produced (which it is – I've looked at it nearly every day of my life for the last twenty years). Suffice to say that Simpson takes you amiably enough through the story of how this beast of English scholarship has struggled, slowly but successfully, to keep up with and take advantage of the technological revolution to stay at the front of its field.

There is not much else to it – he attempts to maintain a kind of background story of his family life, but without much conviction. If you're not really into dictionaries, there's probably not a lot for you here. Though it is nice to learn that he once got performance poet Benjamin Zaphaniah into the office to gyrate in front of him and his team, so they could write an accurate description of skanking.


Stuff like that can still give me a pretty good high. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Nov 23, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465060692, Hardcover)

John Simpson has spent almost four decades immersed in the intricacies of human language. In The Word Detective, an intensely personal memoir and a joyful celebration of the English language, Simpson weaves a story of how words come into being (and sometimes disappear), how history and culture shape the language we use, and how we cope when words fail us. With dry wit, Simpson charts the history of the OED during his tenure and his efforts to democratize--and digitize--the dictionary. Throughout he explores the fascinating origins of individual words--from “jam-packed” to “shenanigans” to “101” (yes, it’s a word). For fans of Between You & Me and The Professor and the Madman, The Word Detective is the perfect book for anyone who loves language.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 23 Jun 2016 18:56:44 -0400)

"What do you call the part of a dog's back it can't scratch? Can you drink a glass of balderdash? And if, serendipitously, you find yourself in Serendip, then where exactly are you? The answers to all of these questions can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. And there is no better guide to the dictionary's many wonderments, its quirks, and its quiddities than the former chief editor of the OED, John Simpson. John spent almost four decades of his life immersed in the intricacies of our language, and guides us through its history with charmingly laconic wit. In The Word Detective, an intensely personal memoir and a joyful celebration of English, he weaves a story of how words come into being (and sometimes disappear), how cultures shape the language we use, and how we cope when words fail us. Throughout, he enlivens his narrative with lively excavations and investigations of individual words-from deadline to online and back to 101 (yes, it's a word)-all the while reminding us that the seemingly mundane words (can you name the four different meanings of ma?) are often the most interesting ones. A brilliant expedition through the world of words, The Word Detective will delight, inspire, and educate any lover of language"--… (more)

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