The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Story of the Oxford Dictionary

In modern day and age it is difficult to conceptualize what it means to undertake a project so massive in scale that the person leading it will most likely not live long enough to see its completion. Where do you derive your motivation from when you are aware that the satisfaction of conclusion will probably not be experienced? Yet, it is in these life-devoting undertakings that many of our worldly treasures came to be. While the current global economy is paying dearly for its overfixation on short term results, it is worth reflecting back on the marvels in history that took years, decades, or centuries to complete. The thirteen week business quarter is such a short period of time that many of these accomplishments certainly did not even show any physical change over 91 days. Now careers are ended and projects scrapped if tangible results cannot be demonstrated in this timeframe.

Michaelangelo worked four years on the Sistine Chapel which is equivalent to about an afternoon's worth of time when compared to the seventy years required to assemble the Oxford English dictionary (OED). This dictionary has little in common with the pocket Webster II crammed into many modern home libraries. The objective of this dictionary was to give definition to all words used in the English language and to reference the previous uses of each word. This required a level of research of the endless number of potential texts that is difficult to comprehend as it reached from New Zealand to the United States. A project of this nature demanded collaboration across oceans imaginable in modern times with email and phone, less so at the turn of the 20th century. To further complicate matters, many of the dictionaries most essential collaborators were volunteers whose only connection to the OED was their passion for reading and interest in the project.

Winchester's account of this story is average overall, fascinating in certain places. We are introduced to several interesting characters whose efforts made up the impressive piece of human achievement today called the OED. To become editor of the OED required a certain type of individual, to say the least. A love for the English language was important but not adequate, mainly because our language derives from so many continental European influences. English represents a combination of these languages in many ways and therefore the editors of the OED were fluent in over ten.

So, what is the outcome of this work? It is a masterpiece that documents our complete language. Since its release in 1928 there has been one new edition with several supplements for the new words appearing in the modern form of our language. The third edition is one quarter complete. The OED is currently celebrating its 80th birthday with a commemorative edition of this twenty volume masterpiece. The offer expires in four days - price for the set? $895. Too bad we just missed Christmas.


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