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Sunday, November 09, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
A fascinating look at the making of the Oxford English Dictionary

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic

James Murray and assistants from the Oxford Scriptorium.
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Impeccably organized and utterly compelling, Simon Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything" is as sharp and eloquent an account as one could wish of the 71 years (1857-1928) it took to assemble the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Winchester touched on the same subject in his 1998 best seller, "The Professor and the Madman," in which he uncovered the significant contribution that murderer William Chester Minor made to OED research from the confines of his cell in England's Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In that book, Winchester also rendered a moving portrait of OED editor James Murray, the gifted Scottish school dropout who orchestrated this vast scholarly undertaking.

But where the earlier book had Minor's insanity contributing to its narrative tension, the new one has only etymological riddles, money worries, deadline pressures, academic in-fighting and human frailty — which turn out to be plenty. Throw in the fact that the none of the scholars who started work on the OED lived to see its completion, and you have a story that will move you to tears.

Here are the statistics: 15,490 pages of text, divided into 10 volumes, defining 414,825 words with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Winchester addresses two questions those figures raise: Why the need for such an enormous dictionary? And how does one approach such a daunting project?

"The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary"

by Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press, $25
The answer to the first question is answered partly by English being, in Winchester's phrase, "the language of invasion." Those invaders of the British Isles included Romans, Vikings, Normans and others. With Britain's expanding trade and colonizing activity came exposure to many more languages that made English an intricate and mutable affair, rich with loanwords and shifting shades of meaning.

It wasn't until 1604 that anything like a dictionary was attempted: a 120-page "Table Alphabeticall" of 3,000 "hard words," defined "for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillful person."

Thereafter the floodgates opened and numerous dictionaries appeared. But in 1857, the London-based Philological Society concluded that all earlier efforts were "just not good enough."

The seven main problems: Obsolete words were not recorded. Families of words were only "capriciously" noted. Histories of words did not go back far enough. Important meanings of words had been overlooked. Distinctions between apparent synonyms had not been made. There was also a "superabundance of redundancy" in most existing dictionaries. And the search through English-language literature for illustrative quotations had been haphazard at best.

By 1860, plans for "the dictionary to end all dictionaries" were well under way. Those in charge expected to complete their work within two decades. They had, alas, 68 more years to go.

Author appearance

Simon Winchester reads from "The Meaning of Everything," 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kane Hall, Room 130, University of Washington, Seattle; free tickets required from University Book Store (206-634-3400 or

Why the delay? One editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), died within a year of taking over. Another, Frederick James Furnivall, was brilliant but disorganized.

It wasn't until Murray came onboard in 1879 that things, shakily, got rolling. The pressures to keep on budget and on schedule were enormous and unrealistic. But the mightiest pressure of all came from what Murray called "the terrible undertow of words" facing him.

For he and his colleagues had no idea what to expect. Words beginning with "A," for instance, presented relatively few unexpected problems. Yet "B" had "many more words of far greater complexity and age than anyone had ever dared to imagine."

Winchester brilliantly elucidates what those complexities were, providing plenty of examples. He deftly profiles the astonishingly learned and eccentric personalities who assisted Murray. He also conveys with powerful restraint the heartbreak of OED editors and researchers when they realized they would not live to see their life's work completed.

Most of all, Winchester brings home "the enormously democratic process that was the Dictionary," in which hundreds of word-lovers helped chronicle a history of their language, without pay and with only minimal recognition.

Thanks to them, "The Meaning of Everything" is as inspiring as it is informative.

Michael Upchurch:


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