Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Meaning of Everything [Review]

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

Author: Simon Winchester (author page with audio excerpt from the book, here)

Copyright: 2003, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0198607024

Length: 260 pages

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Summary: In 1857, Chenevix Trench, an eminent churchman and then Dean of Winchester, read a paper at an evening meeting of The Philological Society with the interesting title, "On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries". Among other deficiencies identified, he suggested that the lexicons available to him and his colleagues offered incomplete histories of words, shallow, incomplete research as to the meaning of words and inadequate examples from English literature of the word in contextual use. The soon-to-be Archbishop of Dublin proposed that the Philological Society vote to sponsor the creation of a new dictionary that would capture the fluidity of the English language over the course of time. The result was the Oxford English Dictionary, a marvelous example of scholarship created by some of the most marvelous English eccentrics of the nineteenth century. Simon Winchester, perhaps most known for his book, The Professor and the Madman, presents the intriguing history of how this classic dictionary came to be compiled by dedicated volunteers and contributors.

Extract: The story of Fitzedward Hall might seem one of anger, bitterness and yet an obsessive devotion to duty; that of W.C. Minor, by contrast, is one of dangerous madness inelectable sadness, and ultimate redemption -- redemption in which his work for the dictionary became in time his therapy, a labour that he needed to perform in order to remain halfway sane. If the outward parallels between the two men -- both Americans, both learned, both with Eastern connections, both troubled in the mind -- are intriguing, the different ways in which the two made their separate contributions to the Dictionary -- and the ways in which the Dictionary in turn made improvements to their lives -- seem even more so.

Also Relevant: The Meaning of Everything offers an interesting reading experience, and I say that with something of a tongue-in-cheek meaning. On the one hand, it is a wonderful story that Winchester offers. It took roughly fifty years to assemble the various segments of the dictionary for final publication; the work was done by a scattered force of readers and scholars, each just a little more odd than the one before. I had only a casual awareness of how the OED came into existence so the book provided me with a historical perspective that I hadn't had before. I have a good deal more respect for Jimmy Wales and his work with Wikipedia, having read this book, than I might otherwise have. The effort of building the OED isn't very different from the effort of building the Wikipedia, except that our information and communication infrastructure is 1000 times more efficient than that supporting James Murray and his staff of editors. It is worth noting that just this past month the OED celebrated the 80th anniversary of the publication of the final fascicle of the original edition of the Dictionary. Given the problems surrounding its inital print publication, one wonders if any similarly ambitious project would ever found its way through the current economic jungle of publishing.

But as I think the extract shows, Winchester is somewhat obsessive and eccentric in his presentation of the story. His sentence structure is entirely convoluted and the reader has to frequently jump forward and back from the beginning of a paragraph to the final line of the paragraph to ensure that the sense is grasped. Add to that, the opening chapter offers a lengthy discussion of the roots of the English language as Winchester tries to show just how much our mother tongue shifts and morphs over time. It's fairly well-done, but that introduction represents about 20% of the book. (If you are one of those readers who decides to stick with a book based on whether the first 50 pages actively engages your attention, then in this instance, Winchester only has about 5 pages past that first chapter to retain your interest. ) Only further on does the reader discover the pigeonholes built to hold slips of paper associated with specific letters and word pairings or the depth of devotion shown by the afore-mentioned Fitzedward Hall as he spent four hours of every day for twenty years in delivering quotations, clippings, proofed pages, etc. to James Murray, the editor and true father of the OED.

I do believe that the OED should receive enormous respect, given its provenance. We're lucky that ninteenth-century England supported so many eccentric, detail-oriented readers.