Saturday, April 30, 2011

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

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
By Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press, 2003. 256 pgs. Nonfiction

The Oxford English Dictionary was compiled in response to a plea for a more complete and more accurate dictionary by members of the Philological Society in London in 1857. It had a difficult time getting off the ground. There were several editors in succession who took stabs at the project without really making much progress. It wasn't until James Murray became the editor in 1879 that the project really began to move forward. The dictionary was a massive undertaking, attempting to provide definitions, pronunciation, etymology, and examples of from 1,000 years of literature for all of the words in the English language. The publication was issued in fascicles of 64 pages each which could then be compiled together an bound as volumes. The first fascicle as published February 1, 1884 and the fascicles continued through 1928. The first edition was complete in 12 volumes; however, there was an immediate need for a supplement which would include words which had been added to the language since the beginning of the project (or for some that were intentional or unintentionally excluded). The supplement appeared in 1933.

In compiling and publishing the OED there were numerous challenges and difficulties. There were also numerous interesting and eccentric personalities involved. Perhaps the most famous of these in recent years has been Dr. William Chester Minor, the largest single contributor to the OED and the subject the book The Professor and the Madman.

The dictionary's advocates had a devil of time obtaining a publisher for the work--it was thought to be far to risky and expensive. It's a tribute to Murray that he pulled it off so successfully.


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