William Palmer

Words, Words, Words

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


Oxford University Press 260pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

THIS IS THE story of an awesome intellectual achievement, told by a reputable writer, and published by one of the foremost university presses in the world. The promotional leaflet that comes with the review copy promises ‘a little known tale . . . in distinctive and witty prose’.

Do they mean this sort of thing? And since Shakespeare – and since William Hazlitt and Jane Austen, since Wordsworth and Thackeray, the Naipauls and the Amises, and the fantasy worlds of the hobbits and Harry Potter, and since science and sport and conquest and defeat – the language that we call Modern English has just grown and grown, almost exponentially.

There is quite a bit of similarly over-excited nonsense in the first part of the book, a potted history of the English language that is sometimes potty as well: we are told that we can learn something of early English grammar from Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon. Not much; except for nine lines, it was written in Latin. Where did George Orwell ‘publicly yearn for English to be purged of all its Latin, French, Greek, and Norse loans’? Orwell did object, in his Tribune column in 1944, to certain twentieth-century borrowings, such as the use of Latin botanical names to replace traditional English flower names, and the incursion of pretentious French or German phrases, or of American slang, but that is a long way from calling for the dismantling of the whole structure of the language he loved. Sometimes Winchester’s own language collapses utterly. This is a complete sentence, at the start of a paragraph: ‘The Latin-based hybrid tongue of the Roman-Britons that, had it remained unsullied by what happened next, might well one day have stood alone as the language of the islands, then dominated.’

Fortunately Winchester’s book does improve with the passages about the early days of the project to produce a new dictionary for the whole of the English language. It was in 1860, in a paper delivered to the Philological Society, that Richard Chenevix Trench pointed out the deficiencies of earlier dictionaries and called for a fresh work, inclusive of all words and based on historical principles. The final arrangement was to be the task of dedicated scholars, but examples of word usage and illustrative quotations were to be supplied by an army of volunteers. It was obvious that Trench was outlining a much larger work than any so far attempted, but that it was to be quite so large and would not be finally completed until 1928 was not foreseen.

Winchester writes well and entertainingly about the travails of the first m;; put in charge of the Muray in the project. Herbert Coleridge devised the system of paper slips to be used in a standard format by volunteers, and had a set of fifty-four wooden pigeon-holes built td accommodate the&. This proved quickly inadequate for the sheer volume of information that flooded in. Coleridge was succeeded by Frederick Furnivall, one of the muscular Christian scholars of immense knowledge and enthusiasm in which the Victorian age abounded. Furnivall – the model for Ratty in The Wind in the Willotus – did not sublimate all of his energies in the Dictionary; at the age of -eight he left his wife and ran off with his beautiful 21-year-old secretary. However, as Winchester says, ‘what was seriously wanting in Furnivall … was any sustained sense of organizition or self-discipline’. For fifteen years the project meandered on, literally tons of paper were accumulated as slips came in and remained unread, subeditors became disillusioned by the lack of direction and left, and the Philological Society considered dropping the whole thing. It was not until 1879 that the decisive step was taken. The Society signed a contract with the Oxford University Press to produce the New English Dictionary, and a full-time editor, James Murray, was appointed.

Murray had left school at fourteen and was almost entirely self-educated, in a vast range of languages and subjects. It is impossible to imagine an autodidact such as Murray being given the opportunity to direct such an enterprise today, but such was his profound knowledge of philology that he was probably the best – and also the cheapest – canddate. He took the mouldering sacks of left by Furnivall, and revised the editorial methods suggested by Coleridge. In his garden he set up what he called a ‘Scriptorium’, a sort of glorified garden shed, which was freezing cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. For the next thirty-five years he and his assistants worked tirelessly, and, section by section, the Dictionary was at last brought into being. The life of this great scholar has already been famously recounted in his granddaughter K M Elisabeth Murray’s magnificent biography, Caught in the Web of Words, published in 1977, and Winchester’s account is obviously heavily indebted to that book. But he does add some new detail about some of Murray’s army of contributors, particularly the schizophrenic murderer Dr W C Minor, who conducted his vast and valuable correspondence from quarters in Broadmoor. (Incidentally, Winchester told much of the story in his 1998 book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne.)

In the end, Winchester manages to shake off his rather odd start to produce a brisk and witty trot through the making of the OED. One has other thoughts about the Oxford University Press itself. The current newspaper advertisement plugging the new Oxford Dictionary of English states that ‘The A to Z of English is Transforming’. Transforming what? These people are supposed to be in charge of the language, for heaven’s sake. The barbarians are inside the gates; the lunatics are running the asylum; the monkeys are jumping up and down on the keyboards in the Scriptorium.

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