In two separate articles Simon Winchester discusses The Man Who Loved China, Krakatoa and The Professor
and The Madman.|
A Back-Story to The Man Who Loved China
A Coincidence Most
Curious and Telling
During the final months of 2006,
I was starting the actual writing of this book,
I found I had developed a habit: I would ask
peopleall sorts of people, relatives and
friends, complete and total strangersif
they had ever heard of the man about
whom I was writing: Joseph Needham.
I thought I had fair reason. I had no
doubt but that, considering his extraordinary
achievements in helping the world
understand the enigma that is China, he
should by rights
be a vastly famous man. Yet
I had to accept that he was not and that most
people would look back blankly on being
asked, What do you
know about Joseph
Needham? So I thought that by asking around, by trying to find out just how
well or how little he was known, I would come to realize the magnitude of the
task that lay ahead of mewhich was helping to make him just as well-known as
his achievements suggest he deserves. What sort of people did know of him, I
wondered, and what kind did not? Such knowledge would, I thought, allow me to
tell his story in a more focused way, the better to get the word out.
came a most curious event. Shortly before Christmas, in Washington, D.C., my
wife and I were busy at home, too busy to cook, and we decided, as people in
America do, to order out Chinese food. We looked in the Yellow Pages, found the
number for a rather dubious-sounding establishment called Mr. Chen's Organic
Chinese Restaurant on the two thousand block of Connecticut Avenue, and called
up to order the usual assortment of the exotic and the ordinary. The lady who
took it all down said it would
be delivered in forty minutes, which made it
about half past eight.
And sure enough, right on time, came the
ring on the doorbell. There in the doorway
stood a Chinese man with a plastic bag in
each hand. There seemed nothing remarkable
about him: he was plainly dressed, jeans and
a leather jacket, unsmiling but pleasant in the
way of all delivery men who are charged with
their thankless task but ever hopeful for a
decent tip. He lifted the bags onto the kitchen
counter and offered up the bill, which was,
I seem to remember, for forty-odd dollars.
There then followed a few moments
of muttered fumbling as Setsuko and
I patted our pockets and opened up
wallets and purses and looked all around
before concluding, to our considerable
embarrassment, that neither of us had
enough cash to pay the man.
maybe twelve dollars in the flat, total. It
wasn't a crisis, but it was a nuisance. Yet
the man didn't seem unduly bothered. We
lived in the center of the city, and there were
banks up and down the street below. So I'll
get my card, I told him, and you and I will
go down together and find a cash machine.
He nodded. I found my coat and my wallet
and told Setsuko I'd be back in a couple of
minutes, and the delivery man and I left
for the elevator.
As we waited for the lift to come, I thought
I might chat idly with him. Where was he
from, I asked. Shanghai, he said. I spoke a
few phrases in Chinese, told him of some
places I knew back in Shanghai, and then
told himfor no better reason than to make
conversation as the minutes dragged by
that I was writing a book about a man named
He looked quite uninterested, of course.
I looked at my feet, tapped my fingers on the
lift button. He whistled, tunelessly. Then
something made me add Needham's Chinese
name. Yes, I said, I am writing a book about
The delivery man suddenly turned to me,
and he looked astonished.
in a tone of stunned amazement.
Most wonderful man.
Now he wouldn't stop
talking. He was a
man who loved China. He is
surely the most famous good Englishman ever
to live in China. And you are writing a whole
book about him? How wonderful for you!
I was a little taken aback at the reaction,
of course, but delighted. Are you really
interested? I asked. Would you like to see
some books, some pictures? And he nodded
his head, vigorously. So I headed back to the
flat, burst open the door. Setsuko looked
dismayed; she had already set out the food
neatly and was expecting me to return ready
to eatnot to come back to the flat with the
restaurant delivery man.
I could sense that
she was a tad irritated, but I spent the next
few minutes showing the man photographs
Needham in Xi'an, Needham in Cambridge,
Needham and his mistress in Chungking.
And there were copies of letters, diaries.
Setsuko coughed. The rice was getting cold,
she whispered. Then, a little wearily:
you could do this some other time? Why not
just get him his money?
And so the delivery man and I left again, and this time we managed to get into
the lift. The conversation became perfunctory once more, and we walked together
to the bank machine. I got out the forty-odd dollars, paid him, gave him a tip,
and then said an enthusiastic good-byehappy to know there was at least one
person in Washington, D.C., and a Chinese man at that, who knew who Joseph Needham was.
Maybe he would be
the first person to buy the book when it was
published, I joked. And then I turned on my
heel and began to walk back to the flat.
But after just a few seconds I heard
footsteps just behind me, and, Washington
being the city it is, I glanced a little nervously
over my shoulder to see who it might be. It
was the delivery man, yet again. His car, or
his bicycle, or whatever he had come with,
was clearly near the doorway to our flat,
and so it turned out that we were walking
together, bound for the same place, in a
kind of lockstep. It was slightly awkward,
considering I had just said my good-byes.
But I thought it would be rude to ignore
him, and so I began to the conversation
When you last lived in Shanghai, I asked,
what job did you have?
He replied, and this time in fair English,
that he had worked in the computer
department of the Standard Chartered
Bank. And I replied to him, since it was
some small fact that I knew, with the single
phrase "Macallee Bank." Standard Chartered
in Shanghai had long been called Macaulay's
Bank, and to old-timers, this peculiar name
Yes, he said, and repeated the phrase:
And then something most
peculiar happened. The delivery man stopped
dead in the middle of the street, cocked his
head on one side, and looked at me strangely.
There was utter silence for half a minute,
and finally he asked, his voice a little hoarse: "Simon?"
And in an instant there was a flash of
realization, a kind of lightning bolt. I said
to him: "Gordon?"
For as it turned out,
we knew each other.
Twenty years before, I realized as we flung
our arms around each other, I had made a
film about this man for the BBC. It was in
1987; I had filmed him; I had filmed his wife.
As we stood there, hugging, I recalled that
I had spent a week in and out of his tiny flat
in the north of Shanghai, and I had brought
him down to Hong Kong the following year
and had made a second film about him too.
I had been comparing the life of a banker
in Hong Kong with that of the life of a bank
employee in Shanghai. I have long since
forgotten the man in Hong Kong, other than
that he was well off and well-dressed, drove a
BMW, took holidays in Phuket and Bali and
Cairns, and had adorable children whom he
sent to private school in England.
This man was GordonCui Guo-hong,
I soon remembered, was his Chinese name
and he was the Shanghai man. He lived in a
fifth-floor walk-up flat, dingy with coal dust.
He rode a bike, and his wife worked in a
factory, assembling radio sets. His was
the far more interesting story since he had
something to aspire to. The Hong Kong
banker already had achieved his middle-class
status. This man was clever but struggling
and, if he had ambition, he had somewhere
And then, quite wonderfully, I soon
remembered something else. In 1988 Gordon
Cui declared that he felt the future of the
world belonged to the United States and had
asked me if I would sponsor him to study for
a Ph.D. at an American university. I agreed
to help. I suddenly remembered it all: I filled
in the forms for him. I paid some fees and,
I further recalled, helped with some of his
first year's tuition at Drexel University, in
Philadelphia. And so far as I knew, he had
gone off to America and then, so far as I was
concerned, had vanished into thin air.
Until this evening, almost two decades
later. Here he was again, standing on
Columbia Road in the Adams-Morgan
district of Washington, D.C., far from
Shanghai, far from Philadelphia, delivering
Kung Pao Chicken and Imperial Purple
Rice to our little flat on a Tuesday night in
December. And I
was the one who first brought
him here. I was
the reason he had come to
America in the first place. Whatever success
he had achieved, I had played some small
but key part, all those years ago. And here,
incredibly, he was. The connection was
extraordinary. Of all the delivery men in
all of the world, this one had to walk back
into my life again. It seemed far, far beyond
Needless to say, Gordon came back
upstairs with me, and we burst into the
flat once moreme and the delivery
man, back as friends again, a whole
world away from where we had first
met. And of course the reason that we
rediscovered each other was that we had
started talking outside the lift and he knew
who Joseph Needham was.
man. Surely the most famous good Englishman
ever to live in China. Had we never talked about Needham, had he not reacted
with such enthusiasm to Joseph's Chinese name, had I not asked him to come and
look at the booksit is more than likely I would simply have gone down to the
bank machine with him and handed him his money and said my good-byes, and he
would have walked off into the dark night and out of my life forever. But he
didn't. He is now back in my life, and in it forevera fact that is a
delight for both of us.
He told us the full story a week later,
when he and his wife took the two of us
out to dinner. For of course, he said, you
will be wanting to know why I am delivering
Chinese food in Washington, D.C.
The story is one with which Needham
would have entirely sympathized. Gordon
Cui had indeed succeeded at Drexel and had
won his Ph.D. The Canadian government was
at the time (it was the early 1990s) offering
full citizenship to Chinese students who had
won doctorates. Gordon had applied, had
been accepted into the program, and had
brought his wife over from Shanghai, and
the pair had moved to Toronto as Canadian
Within weeks he had a job in the
computer design department of General
Motors of Canada, and the couple settled
down to begin their new lives as Canadians.
However, five years later, toward the
end of the decade, he was offered a stellar
and somewhat secret new job at a
communications company in a suburb
outside Washington, D.C. He was allowed to
take it, to come back to his beloved America.
The couple moved to Rockville, Maryland
only to have that particular new dream
suddenly shattered by the events of
September 11, 2001. All non-American
citizens working for the company were
summarily dismissed, no questions asked
and Gordon was faced with the massive
inconvenience of packing everything up
and going back to Canada.
He chose another option. He asked for
and was given permission to remain in
America, this time to work as a freelance
consultanthe was by now, after all, a considerable computer expert. And so he set
himself up as a networking specialist. But
it was during this time that he began to
think seriously about the changing order
of the post 9-11 worldand he came to a
conclusion that Joseph Needham might well
have reached for different reasons: that the
primacy of America was now perhaps coming
to an end and that a new global star, China,
was fast rising in its place.
This being so, Gordon Cui devised a
strategy for himself that would acknowledge
the sudden and stark shift that was coming.
He planned to go home. In America, he
realized, he had become almost invisible, a non-person, just another one of the thousands
of Chinese migrants. But if he could return
to his hometown of Shanghaithis time
with an American doctorate, with the English
language, and, most crucially, with money
in his pockethe would enjoy status and
standing in Shanghai society like never
before. Moreover, he would be able to play a
part, albeit a small one, in the technological
and undeniably capitalist revolution that was
shaking China to its very foundations.
From this point on his routine became
unvarying, with the goal of making money
as quickly as he possibly could. He would
work each day at his consulting job, from
eight in the morning until five at night. He
would then fetch his wife from her job and
the pair would have dinner. He would then
pack his technical manuals into his car and
drive down into Washington, D.C., along
Connecticut Avenue, eventually parking
outside the restaurant owned by his friend,
Mr. Chen, of Chen's Organic. He would sit
there, reading his books, doing his homework
for the following day's work. And if every half hour or so, a waiter
came out of the restaurant with two plastic
bags and told Gordon to deliver them to a
building on Columbia Road, to apartment
502which was the number of our flat
then so be it: it was briefly irksome, maybe,
but it would guarantee Gordon another five
dollars, or maybe ten, in tipsmoney that he
would put in the kitty to help him with his
primary ambition, returning to the country
that heand Joseph Needham, no doubt
believed was the one nation that would
achieve primacy on the planet, and that
was his old homeland, China.
The Oldest Printed Book in the World
What is now known as
the Diamond Sutra
is said to be the oldest printed book in the
world, having been created with carved
wooden blocks nearly six hundred years
before either the Gutenberg Bible or the
earliest works of Thomas Caxton introduced
printing to the West.
techniques have suggested that other Indian
and Chinese documents may be older, this
famous and beautiful Sutra has the advantage
of having the date of its creation written in
the textas well, charmingly, of having been
offered at no charge. A colophon at the end
of the translation states simply that the
document, a Chinese translation of Buddhist
texts from their original Sanskrit, has been "reverently made . . . for universal free
distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two
parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the
9th year of Xiantong [11 May 868 AD]."
The Diamond Sutra is kept in London
(not without some lingering controversy as to
its ownership), at the British Library, part of
the massive acquisition of documents from
the great Mogao cave complex at Dunhuang,
in the western Chinese desert, that was made
in 1907 by the notable Anglo-Hungarian
scholar-adventurer, Sir Aurel Stein.
More detailed information on the
Diamond Sutra, and on the entire
worldwide collections of some 360,000
other documents from Mogao, can be found
at the International Dunhuang Project,
Simon Winchester discusses the research behind two of his recent books, Krakatoa and The Professor
and The Madman.
The Day the World
Exploded: August 27, 1883
Interview provided courtesy of Harper Collins, 2004
Your academic training is in geology. Was writing this book something of
a return to your roots?
It most certainly was, and a delightful one too. I had revisited geology once
before, with The Map that Changed the World, and that experience was very
gratifying (as it was to my Oxford tutor, who is now in his eighties and had
long since given up wondering if I would ever come good). Having had so much fun
with The Map, I thought I might try a larger and more dramatic story.
In Krakatoa, you elaborate on the geologists and scientists whose
contributions enable our understanding of the nature of the catastrophe. Why did
you decide to include their stories in your account of the eruption?
I find the science behind major natural events almost more interesting than
the way in which those same events wreak their effects on human society. The
nature of catastrophe is, after all, reasonably unvarying in the way it ruins,
destroys, wounds and devastates. But if something can be learned from the event
-- not least something as profound as the theory of plate tectonics -- then it
somehow puts the ruination into a much more positive light.
Your account of Alfred Russel Wallace's theory of the survival of the
fittest (and Darwin's use of it) is fascinating. Why is Wallace so little known?
I regret to say that the British class system had much to do with the reason
the very well-connected Charles Darwin from the London area was more highly
regarded than Wallace, the ill-connected amateur enthusiast from the Welsh
borders. Wallace was also away from Britain for a very long time, and was less
able to cultivate influential friends and perform public relations work for
himself. He only had his science; Darwin had so very much more -- and was a
formidable networker, to boot.
You propose multiple explanations for how Krakatoa got its name. Are you
drawn to any particular one?
I love the idea that it was all a mistake, perpetrated by a careless
telegraph operator and then made permanent by a newspaper compositor who thought
'Krakatoa' so very euphonious a word. I'm glad the error was made: Krakatoa is a
truly pleasing word to the western ear, and so much more pleasing than the
proper name, Krakatau.
In your account of the eruption, you rely on information recorded by
instruments of the Batavia gas works. How did these documents escape
Very little in Batavia itself -- which was a hundred miles east of the site
of the eruption -- was damaged or destroyed. The ruin took place in the Strait
and in the low-lying coastal areas -- so much of the scientific data relating to
conditions in Java at the time of the eruption escaped destruction. The Dutch
were also meticulous record-keepers, and made certain the Krakatoa data was sent
back to Holland, and preserved for all time.
If current methods of detecting volcanic activity had existed in 1883,
would they have lessened the horrific loss of life that resulted from the
Without a doubt. One has only to look at the accuracy with which the eruption
of Mount St. Helens was predicted in 1980. Had the US Geological Survey had
strain-measuring devices on the flanks of Krakatoa in 1883 they would have been
able to warn people of impending trouble, and would have tried to persuade the
inhabitants of the coastal communities to evacuate. Whether they would have
succeeded in that effort -- the locals may well have resisted, claiming that
they knew better -- remains on open question.
What is your next project?
I am working on book about an event which has its centenary anniversary on
18th April 2006.
About The Professor and The Madman
Interviewed by John Simpson, reprinted courtesy of Harper Collins
John Simpson: I'm John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford
English Dictionary. I'm here talking to Simon Winchester, who is the
author of The Professor and the Madman, both about the writing of
the book and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Simon, The Professor and the Madman tells a fascinating story.
How did you come across it in the first place?
Simon Winchester: Well, you're probably aware, John, that
there's a book by Jonathan Green (PH) called Chasing the Sun, which is a
history of dictionary making. And I was actually reading this book in the
bath one winter's day about two years ago. And there was a footnote which
said, you know, in a rather offhand way that, of course, readers will be
familiar with the extraordinary story of Dr. W. C. Miner (PH), the
American lunatic murderer who was imprisoned in Broadmoor and became a
prolific contributor to the OED.
I remember vividly sitting up in the bath and saying I've never heard
of this story. And I rang one person in your office, Elizabeth Knowles
(PH), who you'll know well, I dare say, and said, "Elizabeth, do you
know anything--" well, first of all, I apologized and said,
"It's rather vulgar. I'm calling you from my bath in America, but do
you know anything about this chap called W. C. Miner?"
And she said, "Well, as a matter of fact, I know rather more about
him than most people because I wrote a paper about him for a journal, a
quarterly, I think, published in Madison, Wisconsin called
"Dictionaries." And if you'd like, if you get out of the bath,
I'll fax it to you and you can read it when you're'toweling yourself
dry," and so she did.
And I read it and I thought if I can get access to the Broadmoor files
on this man, then perhaps there's rather a good book to be written.
John Simpson: Was it a difficult thing to do because you must
have had access to all sorts of out of the way medical records only held
in Broadmoor. Did they give you access easily?
Simon Winchester: Well, I thought it would be terribly
difficult. He was also imprisoned for quite a long time in St. Elizabeth's
Hospital in Washington, DC. And what I thought would happen was because
Americans are so free with information and the British are so, as you well
know, traditionally rather guarded with it that it would be very easy to
get American information on him but very difficult to get the Broadmoor
In fact, quite the reverse happened. Broadmoor, for all sorts of
reasons, is under attack by the British press at the moment. And when they
had someone who was at least purporting to be a historian coming along and
saying, "I'd like to write about Broadmoor of 150 years ago,"
they said, "That's actually a rather good idea." And they opened
up their files and I was able to go many, many times to Broadmoor and--to
have a look at the thousands and thousands of pages that are his medical
St. Elizabeth's, by contrast in Washington, is now under the control of
the District of Columbia government, which is not a government with a
particularly happy recent record. And they didn't want to give me the
papers at all. And I nearly had to sue to get the papers and it might have
cost a great deal of money and taken a lot of time.
But in fact, it turned out that they were all available through the
Internet and so a couple of clicks on the button and my Visa card number
and they all arrived in a FedEx package the next day. So generally
speaking, the papers were quite easy to get.
John Simpson: You must have been surprised at the book's
popularity. Did it take you by surprise, and what do you think it is about
the book that intrigues readers and captures their imagination?
Simon Winchester: Well, the first thing, I was totally
astonished by the success of the book because not a single one of my books
has ever done well. Very few, I think, have ever earned out their
advances. But this one suddenly took off after a very kind review written
in The New York Times that was published on Labor Day 1998, a Labor
Day that happened to be a rainy day and New Yorkers stayed at home instead
of lazing around on the beach and read the paper and read the review. And
obviously a large number of them thought they'd buy it, and then word of
mouth took over.
But as to why it became so successful, well, I think--I'm sure you'd
agree that the simple story of murder and redemption of W. C. Miner's
character through the work for the OED is a--is quite a good story.
But I think there's another agenda in here. I think that people
like--and this very much plays into your hand, I think, like the rituals
of lexicography. They find it romantic. They find the story of dictionary
making something that if they can get to it painlessly and rather through
the story of a murderer and the American Civil War and all the other
elements of this book, they find it an agreeable thing to do to learn
about lexicography in a somewhat romantic way. And that's my only
explanation for the way the book has done.
John Simpson: Why do you think Dr. Miner was particularly drawn
towards the dictionary?
Simon Winchester: Well, probably you can answer that better than
I and maybe you've got some views on it. But I think--I mean, he clearly
was a deeply mad man. And maybe the soothing rituals of lexicography, the
calm and the attention to detail and the long hours somehow appealed to
someone who in other hours of the night, because it was the nighttime that
his madness was most obvious, it becomes a soothing ritual.
I mean, you tell me what's it like as a lexicographer? Is it a very
meticulous, time consuming kind of work that soothes you in a way?
John Simpson: You paint a very bleak picture of lexicographers.
(LAUGHTER) It's certainly the case that Dr. Miner contributed to the OED.
But I think some people have the impression that he also edited the
Simon Winchester: Well, if you want to hear that story--
John Simpson: Well, I think it's probably worth straightening
out the fact that the material he supplied was the raw--some of the raw
material from which the editors analyzed the language, and--and so there
was a filter before the material was actually published and--and the
definitions were written by the editorial staff.
Yes, it is meticulous work. I used to say it requires a lot of common
sense as well. I think in his lucid hours, he probably had a very
analytical mind. You do need to be analytical to analyze the raw material
of the language, which is the--the quotation texts that readers like Dr.
Miner and others contributed in the 19th century in the thousands.
Simon Winchester: Well, that raises an interesting point. When
you started your work 25 years ago, were you looking for words that were
illustrative of--of the first use of words that were already in the
dictionary or were you looking at modern books for the first use of modern
John Simpson: When I started working, we were working on what
was called a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that was
principally 19th and 20th century editions to the language. So I was
reading a book by a man called Metz (PH) on the language of film, I think.
So it was mainly 20th century words. Film words, that sort of thing.
That work continued on the supplement to the OED until the 1980s and at
that point we --we expanded --broadened backwards in time again to pick up
historical pre-datings to the dictionary, which is what we're engaged on
Nowadays, the comprehensive revision of the OED that we're working on
involves reading material and analyzing material back from the Anglo-Saxon
period up to the present day, which is a fascinating biography of every
Simon Winchester: Tell me how you think the English language in
the way that the OED deliberately allows--welcomes the idea that English
is a flexible, constantly expanding, constantly changing language, but the
French, the 40 mortals at the Institute in Paris, take quite a different
view and regard French as sanctified and fixed. From your position in this
lofty aerie, how do you regard the two countries' approaches to their
John Simpson: I think it's based principally on the different
types of languages they are. I think French has not had a tradition of
being influenced by other languages over history. I mean, English, on the
other hand, has been invaded by the--the French, the Norman Conquest.
We've had empires route around the world, and so we've had words coming
into English from travelers to the former colonies. And we've expanded to
America and into New Zealand, Australia, etc., etc. So English is really a
patchwork language and therefore is quite receptive to change and is able
to accept changes because there isn't a single fixed pattern for English,
whereas French is more of a monolithic language. There's rather less--I
mean, one doesn't like to use words like sort of purity and things, but on
the other hand, most French words have got a fairly long pedigree in
French, whereas if you look at a sentence of modern day English, you'll
see Latin and Greek and French and German and all sorts of other
So I think in general the English speaking people in general as a
community are more receptive to change maybe than the French Academy is.
That doesn't mean that the French people themselves don't change the
language and of course the language does rather like (UNINTEL). The
language rides roughshod over the Academy, in fact. And people in England
in the 18th century, 100 years after the French Academy was set up, wanted
to introduce an Academy into England so that the language could be fixed.
This was a time of Augustan purity, etc., in English.
Simon Winchester: And you would be very much against that, would
John Simpson: Yes. The interesting thing was that although
people like Swift and Dryden and Pope introduced this language and--and
put forth proposals for setting up an Academy and fixing the language, Dr.
Johnson, when he came to write his dictionary in the middle of the 18th
century, started off when he published a plan of the dictionary in 1747 in
which he showed he was part of this tradition of wanting to fix the
language, that the language had reached a point of perfection, as
instanced in the work of the major authors of the previous century.
Simon Winchester: In the old days, you used to have parties in
Oxford and you used to--some of the great contributors who like Miner, but
not including Miner because he couldn't get away to these parties, they
would be invited. Do you occasionally hold get-togethers these days?
John Simpson: I think the last main one was when the second
edition of the OED was published back in 1989 and we had a number of
different parties for readers and contributors and academics who used to
review our entries.
Simon Winchester: It must be a pretty extraordinary party of a
bunch of very dotty people all coming together, drinking bad sherry.
John Simpson: Well, I think you have two misconceptions there.
First, that all OED assistants and staff readers are mad, and that Oxford
produces bad sherry. (LAUGHTER) The second is probably true.
Simon Winchester: It seems to me in the last few years of the
20th century that this is a very rich time for the creation of new words,
that there seem to be more words being born nowadays than, let's say,
there might have been 50 years ago. Is that true or are words constantly
coming up at a fairly steady rate through the centuries?
John Simpson: I think people always think that their own time is
one of the most creative and prolific times for language creation. I think
as far as the evidence in the OED is concerned, and we can now tell a bit
more about that because we've got the OED on computer and you can run
various programs to check on currency at various times in the past. That
principally shows that from the records that we have, the period of
Shakespeare and the early modern period was a period of great creativity.
And also probably the end of the 19th century and the current period now,
although it's difficult for us to analyze the current period terribly
easily because words don't get into the OED straightaway.
So it's easy to have an overview of the language maybe 25 years ago or
so because the word that came up last week, we want to--to gather material
for maybe five years or so and analyze it before we put it directly into
Simon Winchester: Well, how do you determine when a word really
is a word worthy of inclusion? I was asking this question to your Canadian
opposite number the other day and she said 15 quotations of a word means
to her that the word is a word worthy of inclusion. Do you apply such a
hard and fast rule?
John Simpson: Well, I don't apply rules--I don't use expressions
like "real word" and "worthy of inclusion." I mean,
that sets a quality judgement which we don't necessarily work on. No.
We've been reading texts for the last 150 years, so we have large files.
And we have to decide what--we base our inclusion policy into the
dictionary on number of citations that we have in the files. And in
general, it would be if--if we've got, say, five examples of a word, then
we'll put it forward for potential addition to the dictionary. That's not
necessarily a word. It could be a sub- sense of a word, a meaning of the
word, or it could be a phrase or a proverb or a compound. So I guess she
isn't, in fact, working on an historical dictionary. She's working on a
dictionary of modern Canadian English, but she probably has different
criteria than we have.
We actually troll pretty deep and most words that people--if people
come to OED and visit and I say to them, "Tell me a new word that you
know and we'll see if we've got evidence for it," they usually come
up with words that were actually current about ten or 15 years ago
originally and we've had them in the dictionary for a long time and the
most up to date ones they may not necessarily know about.
Simon Winchester: What you are looking for nowadays particularly
are citations, presumably the earliest, of an awful lot of computer-type
words, are you, like e-mail and webpage and so forth?
John Simpson: Yes. Actually, we're working on the word mail
itself, m-a-i-l, and revising the entry since it was first written
in--about 1904. And obviously at that time, they had the postal mail
sense. But what's interesting now is how there's variations around the
world about which--over which countries--which varieties of English use
mail and which use post. So we had a sort of survey.
Simon Winchester: The English use post, of course. Americans use
John Simpson: Yes, but what happens in New Zealand and Australia
and Canada and South Africa and elsewhere? So I e-mailed a number of
dictionary editors on these various continents, in these various countries
to try to determine who followed the American pattern, who followed the
And it seemed that most followed the American pattern, whereas--but I
think New Zealand and South Africa, English-speaking South Africa, tended
to use post instead of mail. But now I think it was last Tuesday, I added
a new entry to the dictionary for mail meaning e-mail. What's that film
Simon Winchester: "You Have Mail."
John Simpson: "You Have Mail." That's right. And so
then that sort of slightly shifts the whole balance of the word mail.
Because people are using it constantly in a computer e-mail context, are
we in Britain and New Zealand and South Africa going to start using mail
for post more frequently? I think we are. I mean, obviously in Britain, we
still talk about the Royal Mail in fixed collocations, but we use post in
ordinary speech. I tend to talk about mail sometimes rather than post.
It's sort of shifting. In 20 years' time, it may be a completely different
picture as well.
Simon Winchester: Do you have a favorite word? And let me
preface this once again by saying that when I asked this question of your
Canadian colleague, who is not, as you say, doing an historical
dictionary, she said all words are equally lovely or equally horrible.
And I said that there were some--in my opinion, there were some words
which were just ghastly and I wish they'd never been invented, but on the
other hand, words like butterfly and dawn were lovely. Do you have a view
John Simpson: It's nice that you mentioned the word butterfly,
which has got itself rather an unpleasant entomology problem, which we
won't go into. But I would actually suggest one of the words--a word like
macrolepadactra (PH) is one of my favorite words. My favorite word is
always the last one I've worked on.
Simon Winchester: Is a macrolepadactra a big butterfly hunter or
a big butterfly?
John Simpson: Or is it a butterfly hunter with a big net? Yes.
No, it's an informal name. It's not a taxonomic name, but it means--it's a
collector's name for large butterflies and moths, the sort of things that
you actually might collect if you're a butterfly collector.
Now the curious thing about that word, which I don't think I'd heard of
before I came across it in the OED, although if you look on the Internet,
there are all sorts of examples of the mac--macrolepadactra of Borneo,
etc., if you want to find them, the curious thing was that the OED
originally when it included the word in 1904 gave the origin as, as I
said, it was an English formation from macro and lepadactra (PH), which
both existed in English as words. But nowadays, we're much more conscious
that English wasn't necessarily the coiner of these scientific terms.
And actually, the scientific community throughout Europe and in America
might have been using these terms. And looking in online book catalogues,
we eventually found an example of the word from an Italian book title from
1851, which is 40 years earlier than the OED had it.
And so we included that information in the entomology, and the
interesting thing for me, really, is that word is typical of evidence that
the OED should be looking throughout English and its neighboring
You have to remember that there was a community of scientists, if you
like, in the 19th century and they were swapping words around. And you
can't necessarily assume, as the OED originally often did, that a word
came from English. It may as well have looked like it came in English--as
an English creation but actually first started off in Salsburg (PH) or
Paris or Milan or something like that.
Simon Winchester: Which brings me to a question that I've longed
to ask you. Are you an English chauvinist, do you think?
John Simpson: Well, I think working on the OED nowadays, you
can't be. I mean, that is what I was saying just now about having to
recognize that English doesn't create as much as the original OED maybe
thought it did and English is just part of a spectrum of language, if you
And no, it means that you have to look around. We're looking for
influences on English and of English on other countries and other
languages rather than seeing the English--English language as a sort of
Simon Winchester: Tell me, the CD-ROM is actually a very good
tool to use for searching for the kind of question I was wanting to ask
you. It is said, wrongly or rightly, I don't know, that in Inuit (PH), in
the Eskimo languages, there are many, many words for different types of
snow. In the English language, is there any particular field that attracts
a particularly large number of words?
John Simpson: It's difficult to say. That's a fallacy about
Eskimo languages, I think. So whether there's an equivalent fallacy in
English, I don't know. I mean, you'd expect prole (PH) England to have
words for different types of rain: drizzle, the har--the fog, the mist
that--that drifts up the Lincolnshire coastline, etc., etc. So yes. A
mizzle, drizzle, haze, what's the difference between fog and mist, etc.,
Simon Winchester: But the language and the dictionary therefore
can almost inadvertently paint a portrait of the society that uses the
John Simpson: Well, I think inevitably a dictionary like the
Oxford English Dictionary is a historical portrait of a language and a
culture and a history. I mean, I don't think I'd be working on the
dictionary if it was just a dictionary of definitions. I mean, it's a
social history. It's a cultural document.
Simon Winchester: How has the computer changed the way you do
John Simpson: Well, when I first joined the dictionary in 1976,
we had, I think, no computers in the department. We were actually quite
slow to get into computing because we were near to the end of a long
20-year project. We didn't want to deflect our interests from actually
getting that completed. That was the publishing objective. But what
happened when we had completed it is that in the 1980s, we started to use
editorial systems, which allowed us to both define onscreen and also to
search material in onscreen databases. And that has revolutionized what we
do. I mean, a lot of our searching for--if we're working on--on a word,
there are nowadays probably about 20 different major historical databases
that we can look into to see if we can find earlier or later examples of
the word. In 20 years' time, there's going to be hundreds--hundreds of
these databases and the difficulty will be to know which to look at.
Simon Winchester: Now the second edition, the one that came out
in 1989, has a CD-ROM version, as you've mentioned. The third edition,
which is due out in 2005, is it, or 2010?
John Simpson: 2010.
Simon Winchester: 2010. Are we going to see a hard copy of that
or is it--
John Simpson: I think we'll inevitably see a hard copy of that
because people want a landmark publication that they can refer back to.
But I think before then, you're going to start seeing revised material
becoming available online from the OED, so you won't have to wait until
2010 to see what we're doing at the moment.
And what I was talking about earlier about the entry for mail, for
example, I would hope that we publish that in the near future. So people
will be able to live along with the story of the English language in the
same way that they used to in the 19th century when they used to buy
installments of the dictionary as it came out in sections or facticles
(PH), as they used to call them. We won't call them facticles these days,
but they'll be, you know, updates.
Simon Winchester: Well, I've done quite a lot of signings in the
last nine months or so since the book was published and a huge number of
people have come up to me and said, "If only I could afford it, I
would buy the dictionary." And of course, there's been a promotion
which enable people to get it at a considerable reduction. And I
understand that--it's a long way of answering your question--I think yes,
it has made people want to buy the OED. And something like 1500 sets of
the 20-volume work have been sold as a pretty direct result of people
reading my book. So I'm delighted about that and we'll see what happens in
the future. But if it's rekindled interest in the OED, then you must be
rather pleased, I would have thought.
John Simpson: As far as I'm concerned, yes. And yes, if it gives
people the idea of going out and buying the CD-ROM, that's terrific as far
as I'm concerned.
Simon Winchester: Now finally, if people listening to this want
to help in the construction of the third edition of Oxford English
Dictionary and want to search for illustrative quotations, much as W.C.
Miner did back in the 1880s, to whom should they write and how should they
submit what they want to submit?
John Simpson: There are two principal ways of submitting
material to the OED. I will say that if people do find a word which they
think ought to be included in the OED or they think it might be an earlier
example, it is most useful to us if they can first of all find a copy of
the OED in their local library and check in that and not send us material
that duplicates what we already have because our editorial staff has a
limited amount of time to work on everything in the dictionary. But
certainly, if people have got material to send to us, then they should
either send it by e-mail, look up the OED website at oed.com, or send it
by post to me, John Simpson, at the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford
University Press, Great Claredon Street, Oxford, OX2 60P in the United
Simon Winchester: And if they do that enough times, there's a
possibility that sometime in the future they'll be summoned to Oxford--and
meet all their like-minded colleagues.
John Simpson: Yes. Maybe we'll have a virtual party with good
Simon Winchester: That would be a splendid idea.