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June 24, 2004

The Meaning of Everything

What I'm reading The Meaning of Everything
by Simon Winchester
260 pg.
Have you ever wondered what it is like to write a dictionary, or to actually define the words in a dictionary? If you think about it for even a little while you realize that it is a very difficult task. Just imagine writing a definition (and etymology!) for the word "at," or "set," or "aardvark." The Meaning of Everything takes the reader into the fascinating world of defining words through a dictionary, and not just any dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1857 Richard Trench, Dean of Westminster and Archbishop of Dublin, presented a paper to the Philological Society of London entitled "On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries." In this paper Trench recommended that "there shoud be constructed now a wholly new dictionary that would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything." It was his recommendation that a dictionary should be written that contained every word, both new and obsolete, ever used in the English language. 71 years, 12 volumes, and 414,825 words later (from A to Zyxt) this goal would finally be attained.

The first editor of "the Dictionary" was Herbert Coleridge who began work on the project in 1860. He was a sickly man who died a year later of "consumption" but not before setting up some of the original rules for the dictionary's creation. Coleridge's plan was to have volunteers from all over the world read books, newspapers, magazines, and send in possible words for inclusion to the dictionary to his office in the form of "quotation slips." He would then file these slips into a suite pigeon holes he had constructed: 54 holes to be exact with 260 inches of linear space. Coleridge thought that this would be sufficient to hold between 60,000 and 100,000 slips. He was purported to have remarked that when all the holes were filled editorial work (actually defining the words) on the dictionary would begin. Obviously he was a little off.

The next editor, Frederick Furnivall, plays a small part in the story and only because he is an oddly entertaining character who had a great deal of energy but in the end didn't really accomplish anything on the dictionary. Realizing that he was hopelessly bad at running the project, the Philological Society sought yet another editor, but this time hired the man who would actually write the lion's share of the dictionary, James A. Murray.

Murray was a stud, there is no getting around it. He worked tirelessly on the dictionary for 36 years, from 1879 to 1915, succumbing to prostate cancer probably after finishing the word twentieth. Can you imagine defining literally hundreds of thousands of words for 36 years? Just thinking about it makes me a little crazy. Upon receiving the job of editor Murray put up an ugly building in his backyard he called the Scriptorium. In it he built another suite of pigeon holes, this time numbering 1,029.

I can't properly imagine the enourmous amount of work that James Murray had to perform on a daily basis. First he had to sift through the scads of quotation slips he would receive on a daily basis. Then he would have to write letters (many, many letters) all by hand to try reach an expert about the meaning of a problematic word. Check out what he once said was a typical day of letter writing:

"I write to the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew about the first record of the name of an exotic plant; to a quay side merchant in Newcastle about the Keels on the Tyne; to a Jesuit father on a point of Roman Catholic Divinity; to the Secretary of the Astronomical Society about the primum-mobile or the solar constant; to the Editor of The Times about a letter of the year 1620 containing the first mention of Punch [the beverage]; to a Weslyan minister about the itineracy; to Lord Tennyson to ask where he got the word balm-cricket and what he meant by it; to the Sporting News about a term in horse-racing..."

And he goes on for another half a page. That is a typical day! On top of this letter writing he actually defined words. Of course he didn't do all of this work alone. He had numerous assistants and sub-editors, and ample help from his family (he had 11 children!). One of the more humorous parts of the book describes some difficulty he had with the word black and a rather lacking assistant:
"Murray blamed much of the enormous difficulties involved in dealing with specific words - such as the 'terrible' word black, and its scores of derivatives, which took his best assistant, the Revd C.B. Mount, fully three months of non-stop work [three months!]. As if the lexicographic trials were not enough, there was always the 'intolerable trouble about assistants'. Murray said that he kept trying to recruit suitable people, but found in almost every case that after each had worked no more than a week, that he or she (usually he) was completely useless. One of them, despite having an Oxford MA, was found to be, in Murray's uncharacteristically dyspeptic report, 'an utter numbskull .. a most lack-a-daisical, graspless fellow, born to stare at existence.'"

"Born to stare at existence" ... I love that. Pretty much describes Packer fans, don't you think? Check out how he finally defined black:
"The proper word for a certain quality practically classed among colours, but consisting optically in the total absence of color, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light."

Imagine defining words like this every day for 36 years. It would take me about a week to go absolutely stark-raving mad.

Murray died in 1915, but the dictionary wasn't completed until 1928, again 71 years after it was dreamed up. And, as I'm sure you know, the trouble with something like a dictionary is that it is never finished. Every year, the OED has to add new words to the English lexicon. Shortly after the OED was finished in 1928 a supplement came out, with four supplements being added from 1972 to 1986, all of which added over 50,000 more words. In 1989 the 2nd edition of the OED came out which combined all of these supplements and now includes 615,000 words (the bulk of which is still defined by Murray). This is still the print edition we find in libraries today (of course the online version is the most up to date). Work on the 3rd edition is ongoing and they hope to complete it sometime after 2010.

You would think that a book about the creation of a dictionary would be the cure for insomnia, but The Meaning of Everything is really a fascinating book. And I haven't done it any justice with my meager scribblings above. Go out and check it out from you local library and read it if you are interested. I'll be returning it to the U of M Libraries tomorrow!

Posted by snackeru at June 24, 2004 7:34 AM | Books


I can't believe I wasn't a part of the writing of this book!! I love this stuff. Thanks for the tip.

Posted by: Cheesehead's Wife at June 24, 2004 12:02 AM

If you like this book, you probably would also like a book I read this summer called, "The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary." It is a wonderful read, and also gives you that delightful bit of history that not very many people know about. Some might think the history of the OED is boring, but not if they've read this book!

Posted by: MadMinor at September 29, 2004 9:24 AM

Thanks for the tip MadMinor. I will have to check it out.

Posted by: Shane at October 1, 2004 10:51 AM

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