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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary Hardcover – October 2, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With his usual winning blend of scholarship and accessible, skillfully paced narrative, Winchester (Krakatoa) returns to the subject of his first bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, to tell the eventful, personality-filled history of the definitive English dictionary. He emphasizes that the OED project began in 1857 as an attempt to correct the deficiencies of existing dictionaries, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson's. Winchester opens with an entertaining and informative examination of the development of the English language and pre-OED efforts. The originators of the OED thought the project would take perhaps a decade; it actually took 71 years, and Winchester explores why. An early editor, Frederick Furnivall, was completely disorganized (one sack of paperwork he shipped to his successor, James Murray, contained a family of mice). Murray in turn faced obstacles from Oxford University Press, which initially wanted to cut costs at the expense of quality. Winchester stresses the immensity and difficulties of the project, which required hundreds of volunteer readers and assistants (including J.R.R. Tolkien) to create and organize millions of documents: the word bondmaid was left out of the first edition because its paperwork was lost. Winchester successfully brings readers inside the day-to-day operations of the massive project and shows us the unrelenting passion of people such as Murray and his overworked, underpaid staff who, in the end, succeeded magnificently. Winchester's book will be required reading for word mavens and anyone interested in the history of our marvelous, ever-changing language.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary has been burnished into legend over the years, at least among librarians and linguists. In The Professor and the Madman (1998), Winchester examined the strange case of one of the most prolific contributors to the first edition of the OED--one W. C. Minor, an American who sent most of his quotation slips from an insane asylum. Now, Winchester takes on the dictionary's whole history, from the first attempts to document the English language in the seventeenth century, the founding of the Philological Society in Oxford in 1842, and the start of work on the dictionary in 1860; to the completion of the first edition nearly 70 years, 414,825 words, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations later. Although there is plenty of detail here about the methodology (including the famous pigeon holes stuffed with quotations slips from contributors around the world), the emphasis is on personalities, in particular James Murray, who became the OED's third editor in 1879 and died in 1915, "well into the letter T." The project backers complained loudly about the slow pace over the years, but the scrupulous care taken by Murray and the many others who worked on the OED gave us what is arguably the world's greatest dictionary. Publication of this book coincides with the OED's seveny-fifth anniversary, even as work on the third edition is under way. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (October 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198607024
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198607021
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 1 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #224,596 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman ; The Map that Changed the World ; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have both been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 73 people found the following review helpful By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on September 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Steve G on May 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was a huge project, far larger than I would have suspected. It took decades to prepare and used several thousand volunteers. Its leaders were men of varying abilities and eccentricities and Simon Winchester captures all of this in The Meaning of Everything. However, this book is written in a more formal language style than are some of Winchester's other books, making it a little less fun to read. This is one of the two books that Winchester has written about the creation of the OED, the other being The Professor and the Madman. The Meaning of Everything takes a more global perspective of the OED's creation, offering a greater explanation of this undertaking. The Professor and the Madman looks at the life of one unique, prolific contributor to the OED and is therefore more interesting and fun to read. If you are not interested enough in dictionaries to buy both books, then I recommend The Professor and the Madman. But this book was not as good as the other in explaining how the OED was developed, so be prepared to not understand everything. If you are sufficiently interested, or you want to have a thorough look at the development of the OED, then read The Meaning of Everything first. It doesn't reveal any information that would make The Professor and the Madman less fun to read.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Roberto P. De Ferraz on December 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There were some human endeavours of the modern world which were to be known to posterity as spetacularly gigantic, given the difficulty, hardship and human toil to have them fully completed. The British effort to build the Suez Channel, and the American on the turn of the 19th century to build the Panama Channel, are good examples of such gigantic steps the human race took in order to bridge distant lands and to easy communication between peoples of distant lands. The same could be said of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a fenomenal task both by the ample range of its scope, which was to solidify and market English as the leading language of the world, and by the number of people involved in the project. Editors? Eight. Number of pages? More than 20.000. Number of entries? More than 400.000, and so on. The task , which initially was estimated to take some 10 years, did not reach its end before many decades passed.
The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester, is a detailed account of the making of the OED, and the reader is entitled to a full range of the most interesting narrative concerning the idiosincratic personalities of each and every successive editor of the dictionary, specially of the legendary Scottsman James Murray, with whom the dictionary is most commonly associated, due to the maturity of purpose the project acqurired in his experienced hands. By the way, Murray was a polymath, a man grown up in poverty but with a keen curiosity and many different interests and who spoke/read more than 25 languages. The many photographs of him and of the many editors are a good add-on to the book.
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