Summary and book reviews of The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything

The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2003, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2004, 286 pages

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Book Summary

A scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the Oxford English Dictionary. Browse an exclusive excerpt at BookBrowse.

From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy"--and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from "the irredeemably famous" Samuel Johnson to the "short, pale, smug and boastful" schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making--how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient that anticipated--and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium--the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it--and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption.

The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project--a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.

Chapter I
Taking the Measure of It All

The English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the creation of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly developed itself adown the ages; its beginnings lie far back in times almost pre-historic. And these beginnings themselves, although the English Dictionary of today is lineally developed from them, were neither Dictionaries, nor even English.

- (James Murray, 'The Evolution of English Lexicography', 1900)


I. The Making

The English language - so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy, so subtle, and now in its never-ending fullness so undeniably magnificent - is in its essence the language of invasion. It was always bound to be so: geology and oceanography saw to it that the British Isles, since long before their populated time, were indeed almost always islands, and the ancestors of all who ever lived there first arrived by sea from beyond, bringing with them their customs, their looks - ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Full of engaging characters and incidents.

Seattle Times

As inspiring as it is informative, Simon Winchester's history of what it took to assemble the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is both a dazzling detective story and a poignant group portrait. A must-read for every language lover.

AudioFile

The amazing history of the Oxford English Dictionary is recounted by its author, and it's a rousing listen. Rife with wit, anecdotes galore, and entertaining wordplay, this audiobook is a must for lovers of the English language.

Christian Science Monitor

Winchester tells the story with great verve in an easy-going, anecdotal style that's delectably readable.

Chicago Sun Times

Winchester has no peer at illuminating massive and complex endeavors through the quirks and foibles of the brilliant and powerful personalities who carry them out.

New York Times Book Review - William F. Buckley

Teeming with knowledge and alive with insights. Winchester handles humor and awe with modesty and cunning. His devotion to the story is the more eloquent for the cool-handedness of its telling. His prose is supremely readable, admirable in its lucid handling of lexicographical mire.

Los Angeles Times - Robert McCrumm

The extraordinary story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a subject perfectly suited to Winchester's magpie mind.... Winchester's account is an affectionate and frankly partisan study of the making of a great dictionary. It is also an offbeat portrait of an extraordinary society.

The Boston Globe - Rochelle O'Gorman

Devastatingly brilliant.... Fascinating, witty, extremely well-written.... Winchester makes words exciting. He obviously loves them.

Forbes Magazine

Winchester brings to life the trials and tribulations of creating the OED, particularly the never-dull personalities of those who were involved. Moreover, he delightfully, admiringly gives us an appreciation of the wonderfully adaptive, ever-expanding English language.... A story that could have been stultifyingly dull is fascinatingly told, with a verve and reverence for the English language that would have won huzzahs from Shakspere (Murray's favored spelling) himself.

Publishers Weekly

Winchester's book will be required reading for word mavens and anyone interested in the history of our marvelous, ever-changing language.

Kirkus Reviews

A magnificent account, swift and compelling, of obsession, scholarship, and, ultimately, philanthropy of the first magnitude.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Inspired story of conflict, madness, genius, and inspiration so amusing that at times it reads like fiction--but it isn't.

Library Journal - Carolyn M Craft

Winchester wonderfully commemorates this monumental record of English and ultimately produces an inspired story of conflict, madness, genius, and inspiration so amusing that at times it reads like fiction-but it isn't. Highly recommended.

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