Christopher Howse

The Definitive Version

The Word Detective: A Life in Words – From Serendipity to Selfie

By John Simpson

Little, Brown 366pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Teatime at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1980s resembled a scene from a Barbara Pym novel. It was taken in the ground-floor room of a grand Georgian building in St Giles’, Oxford, in which millions of slips sent in by volunteer readers filled large grey filing cabinets. In every other office where John Simpson had worked, stock conversation covered football, what had been on television the previous evening and work colleagues. ‘I never heard any of these topics raised at the dictionary tea,’ he writes.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter