The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary 
by Simon Winchester.
Oxford, 260 pp., £12.99, October 2003, 0 19 860702 4
Show More
Show More

Like a Member of Parliament, I must declare an interest: I am employed by the publisher of both the OED and Simon Winchester’s account of its genesis. However, I have had no involvement with the latter, whose author’s qualities are well known to readers of his previous books, most relevantly The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and little with the former, which hardly needs my twopenn’orth of praise and whose faults, as revealed over the years, are being addressed in a new edition.

The book begins with a prologue describing the magnificently self-congratulatory dinner held to celebrate completion of the original OED in Goldsmiths’ Hall on 6 June 1928. This was Derby Day, which allows Winchester to describe the social scene and to opine: ‘A great horse race on a sunny afternoon tends always to bring out the best in people’ (at least it brings them out in their best). The occasion had its own aptness, for the Delegates of the Press had feared at the outset they would lose money on the project. In this they were at once prescient and shortsighted: the OED proper has never made a profit, but the spin-offs such as the Shorter and Concise have more than made up for the losses even before one considers the less calculable benefits of international prestige.

The first chapter, ‘Taking the Measure of It All’, begins with a potted linguistic history from the Celtic invasion of the British Isles to the recent adoption of glasnost and perestroika and the transferred sense of anorak. One is surprised to read that Rome was sacked by the Huns: in most histories it is Alaric’s Goths who storm the city and Attila’s Huns who are deflected by Pope Leo, or by rumours of the plague. It then moves to a review of previous English dictionaries, beginning with Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604, which explains ‘hard vsuall English wordes’ borrowed from Latin and other languages, some now obsolete, others, such as sacerdotal, now well established despite Winchester’s comment to the contrary; and why does he call such items ‘portmanteau words’? A portmanteau is a fusion such as brunch. From the scientific linguist’s standpoint, such a glossary must indeed seem ‘a work of very limited utility’, but why should Cawdrey’s ‘Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons’, or for that matter Winchester’s ‘society dandies’, have needed to look up everyday words they already knew? To be sure, during the 17th century the peculiar jargon of trades and arts would be added to the inkhorn terms (of which English had in any case been charier than Scots); one would like to know how far this reflected an increasing complexity of life that made the full range of such vocabulary less accessible to any individual, and how far it was an internal development in lexicography as each practitioner strove to outdo his predecessors.

Dr Johnson comes in for the usual praise and blame, the latter for his famous definition of network as: ‘Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.’ No doubt this would have puzzled Cawdrey’s ladies, had they ever thought of looking up the word; but as a pure expression of the definiendum’s quiddity it is difficult to surpass, in the sharpest contrast to Johnson’s ‘infamously political’ definition of oats as: ‘A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people.’ That is no definition at all, for it does not specify the distinctive property of the particular grain, but merely states two accidents that may be either present or absent without affecting the subject. Oats would be none the less oats if no horse in England and no human being in Scotland were to eat them.

Chapter 2, ‘The Construction of the Pigeon-Holes’, concerns the early days of the project, from Dean Trench’s lecture of 1857 to the appointment of James Murray as editor in 1879. Much attention is given to the personalities: one would like to know why Trench was ‘deeply embarrassed’ by his participation in the Torrijos rebellion (the DNB indicates disillusion rather than personal failings). Herbert Coleridge is rescued from obscurity; there are footnotes about the omnivore William Buckland, who found mole more disagreeable to eat than bluebottle, and Arthur Munby, known no longer for his poetry but for his oddity of sexual taste. But the famous Furnivall predominates, seen in ‘goatish contentment’ with waitresses, in political activity, in literary quarrels, half-making, half-marring the project.

James Murray is the hero of Chapter 3, ‘The General Officer Commanding’, which describes the all-round intellectualism of his youth; it was he who taught Alexander Graham Bell the principles of electricity. However, when we read that Murray ‘cherished the fact’ of befriending a local ancient, alive when William and Mary were proclaimed joint sovereign by Parliament in 1689, we find the ancient too ancient for belief; according to Elizabeth Murray, young James’s acquaintance was an ancient who had known another ancient who had witnessed the event.

The difficulty of finding a publisher and coming to terms induced Furnivall to complain about the ‘shiftiness and cupidity’ of the Delegates: not the last time that those who have never run a business have failed to understand those who do, and vice versa. Henry Sweet is said to have expressed the fear that ‘Murray would be fired and some Oxford swell, who would draw a good salary for doing nothing, put in his place’; this use of ‘fire’, from 1878 or 1879 and uttered by an Englishman, antedates the first instance in the OED, where it is described as the ‘US slang’ it was still considered to be in my youth.

‘Battling with the Undertow’, as the fourth chapter is called, describes the logistics of lexicography from the pursuit of slips made originally for Furnivall, and then dispersed as the project faltered, to their processing in the Scriptorium, which at first was a shed in Murray’s garden. In it a dais was built by a person whom Winchester describes as ‘the chippy’; at the time, unless the OED is mistaken, that would have meant nothing to a Briton, and either a bird or a prostitute to an American.

The arrival of heavily marked proofs, which would require much expense to correct, provoked Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, Vice-Chancellor of the University, Delegate of the Press and Regius Professor of Greek, to insert an unwelcome oar by demanding that not only slang, but ‘scientific’ words such as aardvark, should be excluded unless found in good literature, and that quotations, none later than 1875, should be taken only from ‘great authors’, certainly not from newspapers. We might expect no better from that unscientific man of letters, whose highest notion of scholarship was the ability to read Thucydides with one’s feet on the mantelpiece, and whose deficiencies as a Hellenist amused Swinburne and disgusted Housman; but he was eventually brought, if not to see sense, then at least to admit defeat, and thereafter became one of the dictionary’s firmest supporters and Murray’s closest friends. The peacemaker was Henry Hucks Gibbs, later Baron Aldenham, who put his money, his tact and his intellect at Murray’s service; his sub-editing work on the letter C was particularly admired.

At last, in 1884, the New English Dictionary, as it was then called, began to appear (as the Delegates shrewdly ordained) in fascicle form, containing words from A to ant, minus African, whose omission Murray began to regret when he perforce included American. It was learnedly reviewed by a freelance journalist called Henry Bradley, whom Murray promptly made an adviser on etymology, and the Press, dismayed by slow progress, made a senior editor. This story is told in Chapters 5 and 6, ‘Pushing through the Untrodden Forest’ and ‘So Heavily Goes the Chariot’. Eventually the Delegates were browbeaten into loving their losses, first by the public response to an article in the Saturday Review, then by the dedication of the dictionary to Queen Victoria, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.

This latter event is delayed in Winchester’s narrative by Chapter 7, on the suppliers of quotations, ‘The Hermit and the Murderer – and Hereward Thimbleby Price’. The hermit was Fitzedward Hall, a reclusive American dismissed from King’s College London after an academic feud, who from his cottage in Suffolk not only furnished quotations but also scrutinised the proofs and encouraged Murray’s resistance to the economisers; the murderer was William Chester Minor, on whom Winchester has already written, and whose tireless assistance whenever he was consulted won Murray’s generous regard. Price, born in Madagascar, whose adventures took him by way of the German Army and Russian prisons to China and finally the USA, is but one of many other helpers, ranging from J.R.R. Tolkien and Henry Yule of Hobson-Jobson down to the most obscure and unassuming, all valued for their diligence.

The last chapter, ‘From Take to Turn-down – and then, Triumphal Valediction’, sees the story through from 1895, when the name Oxford English Dictionary first appeared, to completion in 1928, through an earlier dinner in 1897, Murray’s knighthood, his D.Litt., and the successive deaths of his coadjutors, of Furnivall while take was in proof, and of Murray himself shortly after editing turn-down. A brief epilogue covers the subsequent history.

On this, more might have been said. The Supplement of 1933, edited by Sir William Craigie – who also instituted the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue – did not stand alone, but accompanied a 12-volume reissue in which the title Oxford English Dictionary finally ousted New English Dictionary from its last stronghold on the cover. The four-volume Burchfield supplement is duly mentioned, but not its wide text-base, including such uneasy bedfellows as Gay News and Private Eye; in a moment of inattention, ‘Bazza’, i.e. Barry McKenzie, the hero of one of the latter’s strip cartoons, already forced by the text to spend the night on the dunnee (OED spelling dunny), was by insult added to injury reduced to lower-case. And, having more than once deplored the lack of attention paid to female helpers, Winchester unaccountably passes over in silence (as the volumes’ prefaces do not) the part played by Marghanita Laski, not only as an indefatigable supplier of words and external proofreader. It is a matter of common repute that when a recent attestation of a usage could not be found, she would incorporate it in a letter to the Times, confident that it would be printed; it is less well known that, as a railway enthusiast, when sent the proofs for the letter R, she greatly expanded the treatment of compounds beginning with rail. In order to save money the printer had gone straight into page, in its narrow three-column format at that, with little hope of containing even small additions within the paragraph, let alone the new entries and examples (I speak as an eyewitness) that spread all over the pages.

The five supplementary volumes were merged with the main text in the second edition of 1989; Winchester does not note that the opportunity was taken to substitute the International Phonetic Alphabet for Murray’s symbols, and to discard some of his more eccentric or antiquated pronunciations, such as armada rhyming with Ada, nor that the classically correct sb. for ‘substantive’, which he deems perverse, was replaced by n. for ‘noun’.

Nevertheless, he has given us a useful and entertaining study that provokes further reflections. In Chapter 1 the usual culture heroes are paraded: Chaucer, Caxton and Shakespeare. For better or for worse, Court English, full of French loan words and no longer reliant on its own resources to augment its vocabulary, was likely to become the standard language of the kingdom; it was Chaucer who made it into a volgare illustre. Winchester recognises this, and regrets the lack of scope adequately to describe his merits; but as is customary in England, he praises the keen observer of local life and ignores the ‘Grant translateur, noble Geffroy Chaucier’, who breathed French and Italian inspiration into English literature. Yet catching up with Europe might have been a theme in its own right, for not only did Caxton bring across the Channel an art already well established on the Continent, but (as Trench was well aware) the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, which likewise set out to give a historical account of a language, had already begun publication when the project for the New English Dictionary was conceived, and before the first volume appeared in 1884 not only had Emile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française appeared but the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal had started to come out.

To be sure the Deutsches Wörterbuch was not, at first, intended as a purely academic work: in the preface the hope is expressed that it would be read with reverence in the household. ‘Why should not the father pick out a few words and by going through them in the evening with his boys at once test their gift for language and refresh his own? The mother would gladly listen’ – for women, we are told, often have a real desire to practise their uncorrupted feel for the language. Perhaps the boys (nothing is said of girls) might have enjoyed this more than the Bible-readings to which their counterparts were subjected in Britain; but such domestic cosiness meant nothing to the Grimms’ successors, who had read every instance of their words from the Hildebrandslied to the morning newspaper and were intent on proving it; as a result, whereas three volumes had sufficed to see the language as far as Forsche, the rest of F and G entire took another five fat tomes (though collectively forming Volume IV), and the end of Z was not reached till a hundred years after A and B. (A new edition is under way, in which two volumes reach only halfway through A.) But even in the brothers’ original vision, the people remained consumers; as Winchester observes, it was the genius of the Dictionary projectors to involve them as contributors.

In one respect, however, the Grimms have the advantage: their insistence that, family treasure or no, the dictionary is not a book of morals. Winchester records Dr Johnson’s riposte to the lady who noted his omission of obscenities; but British prudery kept cunt and fuck (though not piss, which was biblically sanctified, or shit) out of not only the OED but all other general dictionaries until Burchfield’s A-G volume of 1972, though fifty years earlier, windfucker, an obsolete name for the kestrel and a ‘term of opprobrium’ used by Ben Jonson and Chapman, was permitted to nest in Volume X, and bugger, which originally denoted a heretic and in its sexual meaning was a legal term of art, could not be excluded even in 1888. The first entry under prick, sb. 17a, should be enough to prove that reticence on Murray’s part was not to blame.

On the other hand, the Grimms imagined it to be ‘the duty of linguistic research, and especially of a German dictionary, to resist the immoderate and unjustified advance of the foreign element’; as a result, loan words, unless completely assimilated, are either inadequately treated or omitted altogether. English, which before the Norman Conquest was as ready and able to rely on its own resources as German or Icelandic, thereafter lost the will to do so; Murray could have no truck with Grimmlike purism, and included any words that had some claim to form part of the language. Whether this reliance on the foreigner betokens strength or weakness, the 19th-century Saxonists who attempted to reverse the course of history by expelling all non-Germanic words from English met with very limited success; although Winchester claims that some of William Barnes’s coinages, faith-heat, word-strain, wheelsaddle, intended to replace enthusiasm, accent and bicycle, ‘achieved some success and are to be found in occasional popular use’, I have never heard them, nor are they in the OED. In any case faith is not Saxon but Norman, still pronounced as in the Conqueror’s day. To be sure, the Saxonists foisted on the language two needless novelties, foreword for preface and handbook for manual, formed after the German Vorwort and Handbuch, though handboc was genuine Old English for a sacerdotal service-book; the old and the new words jostled for place until publishers (as one trusts the third edition will record) determined that a preface should be written by the author and a foreword by another, and general usage assigned mechanical instructions to a manual and intellectual information to a handbook, thus inverting the normal rule that the Germanic synonym is more down-to-earth than the Latin. But who shall write pure English when in so plain-spoken a sentence as ‘they got egg on their faces,’ only on is Saxon, faces is French, and the other four words are Norse?

Finally, the sardonic comments of H.L. Mencken in advance of the 1928 celebrations reveal a belief, not merely in English or Oxonian quaintness, but in the separateness of the English and American languages. This notion has not caught on, save among translators anxious to increase the number of languages they can claim to know; otherwise we should be obliged to speak of ‘Indian’, ‘Australian’ and much else besides. It has seemed self-evident, not least to the editors, that the third edition should record usages in all varieties of the language; in other words, that not only is English owned by no one nation but by so much of the world as speaks it, but it is the OED’s duty to serve that much of the world. It is the measure of the achievements recounted in Winchester’s book that such a statement stands beyond dispute.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 26 No. 1 · 8 January 2004

Leofranc Holford-Strevens claims that fuck was ‘kept out of not only the OED but all other general dictionaries until Burchfield’s A-G volume of 1972’ (LRB, 20 November 2003). The Penguin Dictionary of English, compiled by G.N. Garmonsway with Jacqueline Simpson, and first published in 1965, cites the word as ‘v/t and i (vulg) (of males) have sexual intercourse (with)’.

Geoffrey Ridley Barrow
Purdue University, Indiana

Vol. 26 No. 2 · 22 January 2004

Geoffrey Ridley Barrow takes me to task for overlooking the Penguin Dictionary of English (Letters, 8 January). So I did, but so too did Robert Burchfield in his introduction to the A-G volume of the OED supplement; I ought to have used quotation-marks. Conversely, I now find that fired in the sense of ‘dismissed’, though given in quotation-marks, was in fact Simon Winchester’s own word, not Henry Sweet's.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences