‘They got egg on their faces’

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

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

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in