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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary [Paperback]

Simon Winchester
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 10 2004 019517500X 978-0195175004 Reprint
From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary. Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy"--and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from "the irredeemably famous" Samuel Johnson to the "short, pale, smug and boastful" schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making--how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient than anticipated--and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium--the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it--and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption. The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester's supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project--a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world's unrivalled uber-dictionary.

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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary + The Professor And The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
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From Amazon

Ask a logophile or crossword-puzzle addict what the holiest of holy reference works might be, and you're almost certain to receive a three-letter acronym in reply: the OED. Now in 20 volumes and still growing, the Oxford English Dictionary is an astounding monument, one that, like the Great Wall and the Roman Forum, seems to have been around forever. But, writes the always interesting explorer Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything, it took decades--and considerable sums of money--to bring it into being. The Scottish autodidact James Augustus Henry Murray, surrounded by a small army of underpaid and overworked helpers, laboured over it for more than half a century, seeing into print "a total of 227,779,589 letters and numbers, occupying fully 178 miles of type" that brought the elusive histories of words such as walrus (courtesy of J. R. R. Tolkien) and cow ("the female of any bovine animal," courtesy of Murray himself) into sharp relief. The making of the great dictionary over the years and decades seems an unlikely topic for a sometimes romantic, sometimes suspenseful tale, but Winchester delivers just that. Those who cherish words will find it a constant pleasure. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

With his usual winning blend of scholarship and accessible, skillfully paced narrative, Winchester (Krakatoa) returns to the subject of his first bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, to tell the eventful, personality-filled history of the definitive English dictionary. He emphasizes that the OED project began in 1857 as an attempt to correct the deficiencies of existing dictionaries, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson's. Winchester opens with an entertaining and informative examination of the development of the English language and pre-OED efforts. The originators of the OED thought the project would take perhaps a decade; it actually took 71 years, and Winchester explores why. An early editor, Frederick Furnivall, was completely disorganized (one sack of paperwork he shipped to his successor, James Murray, contained a family of mice). Murray in turn faced obstacles from Oxford University Press, which initially wanted to cut costs at the expense of quality. Winchester stresses the immensity and difficulties of the project, which required hundreds of volunteer readers and assistants (including J.R.R. Tolkien) to create and organize millions of documents: the word bondmaid was left out of the first edition because its paperwork was lost. Winchester successfully brings readers inside the day-to-day operations of the massive project and shows us the unrelenting passion of people such as Murray and his overworked, underpaid staff who, in the end, succeeded magnificently. Winchester's book will be required reading for word mavens and anyone interested in the history of our marvelous, ever-changing language.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars improves on "The Professor..." April 6 2004
Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything seems at first glance to merely be a sequel to the popular The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary. But I found The Meaning... to be a vastly superior book. Frankly I think that The Professor... would have made a good, long, chapter in this book (as it is you have several pages of rehash to retell Minor's story).
I think what makes book better is that Winchester has more meat to chew on. The making of the OED was not a simple affair and the whole thing seems to have very nearly met its end on more than one occasion. The book reads like a fantastic novel, complete with good guys and evil villains. And along the way you get to learn a good deal about a) the English language, b) lexicography (Dictionary study) and c) the English society that produced such a monumental (in all meanings of the word) work.
I felt a little cheated towards the end when the last 70 odd years of the OED are wrapped up in a few pages. I would have found it fascinating to learn more how the work of gathering up new words for the planned 2007 edition has changed since the original plan in the 1860s. And Winchester still tends to wander just a bit too much for my taste.
All in all a good solid read that will entertain and edify at the same time.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rome wasn't built in a day... Feb. 1 2006
The towering products of the English language include several disparate kinds of works - the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Chaucer, the Authorised King James Version of the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the book that is the subject of Simon Winchester's text, the Oxford English Dictionary. Contrary to the belief of some who might never have seen the dictionary, this is no 'mere' dictionary. Some people have the two volume edition that comes in a box-slip case with a magnifying glass (I remember being offered one such when I belonged to a book club twenty years ago), whereas major libraries will have the larger-print 20 volumes of words.
This is a publication still in progress. The OED now has plans for a BBC television show that hunts for words and word origins; the website edition of the OED is in constant revision and very heavily used. According to the OED, 'The Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past. It traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.' How did it come to have such authority in the English language?
One thing to consider about the difference between English and a language such as French is that there is no definitive central authority that has official imprimatur over linguistic matters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This book describes the story of the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and is not to be confused with the small conventional Oxford dictionary found at a modern bookstore. The original OED is a series of volumes that gives many quotes for each and every word to show how the word is used. Starting with the letter "A" it took a remarkable 70 years to complete the final volume that included the letter "Z". It was started from first concept in 1857 and went on until it was completed with the final tenth volume in 1928. It is thought that a modern version would be 40 volumes long. There are similar German and Swedish dictionaries that have taken over 100 years to complete and the Swedish version has yet to be completed.
The present book was written in approximately 2003, and is a bit similar but a vast improvement over the earlier book "The Professor and The Madman" also written by Simon Winchester but published in 1998 - my opinion. So Winchester now has two books on the subject of the writing of Oxford English Dictionary. But this newer book is much better than the older book. The two books approach the OED with different emphasis.
The first book 'Professor and the Madman' is somewhat like the author getting into the saga of the OED and suddenly making a left turn up the winding and unpredictable path of the life of Dr. William Minor, a mental patient that helped work on the dictionary from his cell. The rest of the OED story falls by the wayside.
Here we return to the OED story and all of its colorful characters. The first book was written in approximately 1998. The span of time has given Simon Winchester the opportunity to present a better package of ideas and it all shows. The present book gives a very detailed and balanced description.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The meaning of everything shot out of a cannon Nov. 20 2003
I knew I was in trouble with this book when I found myself fantasizing about cleaning my bathroom to avoid reading.
I'm in full agreement with the critique posted Octobert 22 by a reveiwer from CT. This book seemed thrown together capriciously, as if bits of information were written on confetti and blown out of a cannon.
Still, I gave the book two stars for content; albeit some of that content, in the form of footnotes, seemed like filler.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining
Until I read this book I really had no idea that the OED was, in large measure, created by the contributions of an army of unpaid amateurs. Read more
Published on Oct. 22 2010 by C. J. Thompson
4.0 out of 5 stars Needed some of that famous editing....
This is an interesting story well-told, but I find myself in agreement with those readers who feel that it was somewhat hastily thrown together. Read more
Published on July 16 2004 by Flockwood
5.0 out of 5 stars Awe inspiring on several levels
Simon Winchester's book chronicles the efforts of many individuals who, as he often repeats, never received compensation and only limited recognition. Read more
Published on June 19 2004 by Bill y
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise history of the OED
Immediately after I finished undergraduate school, some thirty years ago, I joined a book club, finally free to read for pleasure once again. Read more
Published on June 3 2004 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Fab Forward
The greatest virtue, it seems to me, of this account of the glacial development of what can only be called the greatest reference work in the English language is its concision. Read more
Published on May 11 2004 by Daniel Myers
5.0 out of 5 stars The Meaning of an Excellent Book
OED involves -involved and it will involve- a double, towering feat in the history of scholarship. One, for certain, as a majestic monument to a gloriously rich language. Read more
Published on April 7 2004 by Fernando Villegas
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful romp through a monumental history
I could not bring myself to put this book down--it was too fascinating in too many ways. Other reviewers have amply and most revealingly described it; I will content myself with... Read more
Published on March 8 2004 by "scribble136"
5.0 out of 5 stars Great fun for the over-educated (like me)
A delightful bit of business, mainly because of Winchester's taste for the bizarre. The actual history is liberally salted with mostly unrelated anecdotes (such as the fact that... Read more
Published on March 6 2004 by Lynn S. Hendricks
5.0 out of 5 stars Could have been written by an eminent Victorian
I wouldn't exactly say this book is gripping or enthralling. Winchester writes with a kind of distant, haughty prose which comes across as rather ... Victorian. Read more
Published on Feb. 6 2004 by Ken Zirkel
5.0 out of 5 stars By definition, a story superbly and wittily told
Of the fifty or so books I've read this past year, Simon Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything" has been my favorite. Read more
Published on Feb. 2 2004 by Jon Hunt
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