The Meaning of Everything (papeback) by Simon Winchester
Having not read The Professor and the Madman my immediate reaction to this book was how could the creation of a dictionary be an interesting story. Fortunately, my initial reaction was not correct, this is a very interesting story.
Simon Winchester takes you back to the latter part of the 19th century when the main English dictionaries were the Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson's. No one had created a dictionary of the scope and size proposed and insisted upon by James Murray. No one knew if a dictionary of this size would sell in any substantial quantity or if it would every even be completed. Several publishers could have taken on the project and it could have even been published in America. You will find out how it came to be published by Oxford University Press and how the basic design of the project eventually got agreement. How James Murray managed to keep the size and scope of the dictionary intact despite the desires of others to pare down the project and how the dictionary was completed.
A very enjoyable read!
From the publisher:
Penned by the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World and Krakatoa, here is 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 that anticipated-and how handmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after theB-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron shed 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 erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this ambitious project a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.
SIMON WINCHESTER is the author of the bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World, and most recently, Krakatoa. He lives in Massachusetts and London.
30 Black and white illustrations