The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published in November of 2012
Very, very slow to start. Winchester begins by talking about a derby. I understand he wants to establish the setting and talk about the political and cultural climate of the day, but he just goes too far. It seems his personal motto is “never use one word when three will do.” That being said, and I don’t know how he did it, the more I read the more enthralled I got. Even when he surged way past my tolerance level for description. You may want to read this with a dictionary handy; perhaps the OED, if you’ve got one. A small sample of words I had to look up: prolixity, fascicles, martinet, and gallimaufry. Sometimes I suspected that Winchester was just showing off. Or that his goal in writing about the first dictionary to attempt to completely encompass English may have been, in part, to see if he could use all the words. I didn’t do a formal count, but I think he came pretty close. Although sometimes that resulted in some strange pairings; “fairly execrable” (179) wasn’t a descriptive pairing I would have employed, although I had to look up execrable to know. (“Utterly detestable; abominable; abhorrent; very bad. So combining it with “fairly” seems a little imprecise.) A few pages later he describes “indisciplined fractiousness” (182) between some characters. I had to look up “indisciplined” (“lack of discipline or control”), but the page before that he uses “undisciplined” instead. So I looked that up because I wanted to know what the difference was. It means “lacking discipline; not disciplined.” No difference whatsoever.
I also found reading this book made me want to buy an Oxford English Dictionary. I have no idea how much it would cost, though. And I’ve seen an iPhone app for the ODEsee note– for the slightly shocking price of $30; so I can barely imagine the price -and weight- of the physical volume. Winchester makes an excellent point; the expected weight and size of the next edition will mean every set printed has a hefty impact on the environment, and perhaps an electronic copy would be a better choice.
In summation: a little slow to start, but surprisingly enchanting.

Side note: a search of the iTunes app store for “Oxford English Dictionary” turns up iPhone and iPad apps for the Oxford Dictionary of English and Canadian Oxford Dictionary for $29.99. But it’s not clear if these are the genuine OED, or knock-offs. The description states it is “the flagship British English Dictionary from Oxford”. But it has only 350 000 words, phrases and meanings, whereas according to The Meaning of Everything the version of the OED published in 1989 had 615 100 words alone (247). Reviews of the app were at both ends of the spectrum, with some assuring it was a genuine OED and that it was a great app, and some saying that it wasn’t very good at all and/or wasn’t the OED. I did note it wasn’t published by Oxford University Press, but by Handmark, Inc., which makes me a little suspicious. My search also turned up a book titled Oxford English Dictionary Online for $5.99, published by English Drama Media 2011, June, 20. But the five reviews of this book all screamed that it wasn’t a dictionary, it was an essay. (They were very angry.) I googled “Oxford English Dictionary” and found their website with negligible effort. You can still order a print version, but they also do online subscriptions (single user or library) and a CD version. And Twitter. An obscure word a day keeps the teacher away, perhaps? They don’t mention an iPhone app. You also see Oxford University Press and Oxford English Dictionary everywhere on the genuine OED website, but no Oxford Dictionary of English. So I suspect that the iTunes app isn’t as genuine as it appears to be. Apparently when trying to track down the genuine OED, let caveat emptor be your watchword.

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