The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester - review by William Palmer

William Palmer

Words, Words, Words

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

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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

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