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A dictionary that's never at a loss for words

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At the same time that Great Britain battled to rule the waves and more than a quarter of the globe, some of its smartest and most eccentric citizens were engaged in another titanic struggle.


"The Meaning of Everything"

By Simon Winchester,
Oxford University Press ($25)


Their challenge was to capture the depth and breadth of the mutating English language in one super-dictionary. No easy task for a language that contains more words than any other. While the effort took more than 70 years and went wildly over budget, they succeeded. That effort to define "the meaning of everything" provides the subject for an entertaining history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Simon Winchester, journalist turned popular historian, has written about topics ranging from modern Korea to English geology to a gigantic volcanic explosion on Krakatoa.

His new book is filled with telling anecdotes and incisive personality sketches of the polymaths, autodidacts, misfits and compulsives who produced a landmark work.

This book is Winchester's second look at the creation of the OED, as the work is known to generations of writers and English majors. In "The Professor and the Madman," Winchester told the story of the epistolary relationship between James Augustus Henry Murray, the greatest editor of the dictionary, and W.C. Minor.

Minor, an American, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He supplied Murray with thousands of quotations he collected in his wide reading from a cell in England's Broadmoor Prison.

The plan for what Winchester describes as "a full-length illustrated biography" for every word in the English language was broached by an Anglican cleric named Richard Chenevix Trench in 1857.

The initial job wasn't completed until 1928 and updating has continued ever since.

The task called for quantification, and Winchester doesn't spare the statistics: The first edition contained 15,490 quotation-filled pages and defined 414,825 words. Those numbers far exceed the 43,500 words in Samuel Johnson's dictionary and the 70,000 in Noah Webster's popular American version.

Even as the first edition was being completed, lexicographers were working on a supplement, which was published in 1932. Another four volumes of new words were added between 1972 and 1986.

In 1989 the OED was revised for a second edition that defined 615,100 words. Now, volunteer readers are perusing texts in a wordwide search for new entries to add the third edition. That version is likely to be all online and may contain as many as a million words.

Producing the original OED consumed the working lives of three generations of scholars, who were aided by hundreds of unpaid volunteer readers from around the world.

Several false starts delayed the project. Frederick James Furnivall, the first editor, was full of grand ideas but lacked the self-discipline or organizational ability to carry them out. Editor Herbert Coleridge had a critical insight -- use legions of readers to collect quotations and examples of usage -- but he died too young.

It wasn't until 1879 that Britain's Philological Society found the right combination of scholar and administrator to take on the job. James Murray, their new choice, estimated that the project would take 10 more years and cost about 9,000 pounds, roughly $800,000 in modern U.S. currency. Instead it took another 49 years and cost about 375,000 pounds, as much as $30 million. Winchester is convinced the effort was worth every penny, and he persuaded me.

Murray attracted a colorful crew of helpers. They included linguist Henry Bradley, who learned Russian in 14 days, and George Perkins Marsh, one of the many Americans involved in the project. Winchester introduces Marsh as "the man who introduced the camel into the Wild West (to the rather limited degree that it has been introduced)."

J.R. Tolkien, missing his second "R" in 1919, was one of the multitudes who worked on the dictionary. His words included "walnut," "wampum" and "walrus." Recalling his lexicographic experience, Tolkien wrote that he "learned more ... than in any other equal period of my life."

The equivalent of a lifetime may seem like an excessive amount to devote to any literary project, but Winchester points out that OED's pace was rapid when compared to similar efforts. The German dictionary, begun in 1838, was not completed until 1961. A Dutch effort took 145 years, while a Scandinavian 19th century undertaking remains mired in the complexity of Swedish "s" words even now.

In his introduction, Winchester thanks the Oxford editor "for first getting me involved in what turned out to be a most enjoyable of tasks." His enjoyment of the undertaking comes across in every page of this fast-paced, amusing and mind-expanding work.

Len Barcousky can be reached at or 724-772-0184.

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