Simon Winchester Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester

An interview with Simon Winchester

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, when I was starting the actual writing of this book, I found I had developed a habit: I would ask people—all sorts of people, relatives and friends, complete and total strangers—if 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 me—which 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.

And then 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.

There were 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 him—for no better reason than to make conversation as the minutes dragged by— that I was writing a book about a man named Joseph Needham. 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 Li Yue-se.

The delivery man suddenly turned to me, and he looked astonished. Li Yue-se? he asked, in a tone of stunned amazement. Li Yue-se? 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! How wonderful! 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 eat—not 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: Perhaps 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-bye—happy 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 once more.

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 stuck. Yes, he said, and repeated the phrase: Macallee Bank.

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 Gordon—Cui 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 to go.

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 the believable.

Needless to say, Gordon came back upstairs with me, and we burst into the flat once more—me 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. Most wonderful 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 books—it 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 forever—a 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 citizens.

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 consultant—he 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 world—and 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 Shanghai—this time with an American doctorate, with the English language, and, most crucially, with money in his pocket—he 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 502—which 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 tips—money that he would put in the kitty to help him with his primary ambition, returning to the country that he—and 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.

Though radio-dating 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 text—as 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.

About Krakatoa:
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 destruction?
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 Krakatoa eruption?
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 information.

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 papers.

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 dictionary.

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 words?

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 now.

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 word, really.

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 languages?

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 influences.

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 you not?

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 the dictionary.

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 mail.

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 British pattern.

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 called?

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 or not?

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 countries.

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 like.

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 monolithic pedestal.

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., etc.

Simon Winchester: But the language and the dictionary therefore can almost inadvertently paint a portrait of the society that uses the language.

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 things?

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, 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 Kingdom.

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 sherry.

Simon Winchester: That would be a splendid idea.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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