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

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

by Simon Winchester


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195175004
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 10/14/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 497,561
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the author of the bestsellers The Map That Changed the World, The Madman and the Professor, and Krakatoa. He was a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and The Sunday Times and was based in Belfast, New Delhi, New York, London and Hong Kong. Winchester has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He lives in Massachusetts, New York, and the Western Isles of Scotland.


New York; Massachusetts; Scotland

Date of Birth:

September 28, 1944

Place of Birth:

London, England


M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

Table of Contents


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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent book! In the wee hours I was still up reading, thinking just 5 more pages and I'll go to bed...I 5 more paged myself to the end!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a history buff, I thought this book would be mildly interesting. Once I managed to start reading, however, I could not put the book down. It details little known facts about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, while introducing the reader to the individuals who slaved over this work for over 70 years. It is also quite informative, detailing the work that goes into such a project. If you love history and the English language, it's a great story!
Singlestar More than 1 year ago
I read The Professor and the Madman when it first came out and did not think it could be topped. It was. This book is a pure delight. It holds a place of honor in our library. Anyone who loves the English Language will appreciate the time and effort that went into this book. Simon Winchester has a wonderful way with words. It was a joy to read.
LMHTWB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of The Oxford English Dictionary and how it came to be. Simon Winchester does a good job at telling the story -- and it is a story, as opposed to a history. He includes some footnotes, but it would never be confused with an in-depth history of the OED. The focus is on the early years, when the project was getting started, and not the newest edition, including the electronic version. I do wish he would have spent more pages on the problems of the latest electronic version, because it has to have it's own set of challenges. One major drawback from reading this book is now I want to buy the OED.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I hate to admit this, but I didn't care for The Meaning of Everything. Okay, while I'm being honest I'll go for broke - I didn't get beyond page 19. There. I said it. I was bored. As a person deeply connected to reading you would think I would be intimate with words, especially the origin of words. I mean, words form sentences and sentences form paragraphs and paragraphs form pages and pages fill books, right? And books are what it's all about, right? No. I guess the bottom line is I don't care about where the word came from. The word, when it stands alone, is boring. How sad is that? I need words strung together into sentences. Those sentences need to be woven together to ultimately make a story interesting. This, however, was not.
BooksForDinner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just makes me want to own my own edition of the OED. Like right now. Lovely Simon Winchester!
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of Winchester's best.
catalogthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read this for library school. Actually enjoyed it.
Tpoi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The OED is an incredible achievement and Winchester lays out the history well. Especially elucidating are the explanations and analysis of the volunteer effort which is the backbone of the OED, an army of amateurs volunteers around the globe who spent an unspeakable amount of time researching the history of common words as well as such words as depone, erinaceous and floccinaucinihilipilification. I think it is this emphasis on etymology, on historical and contextual use, which is especially important; there is no official Academy of English language, no linguistic metropole or arbitrator, and so therefore all meaning is to be found in situ (i.e., descriptive rather prescriptive).
audramelissa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While it appears that the networks of the Web have lead to revolutionary progressions of information sharing, we must recognize the contributions of people who have been a part of endeavors without the current technologies. Winchester traces the long history of Oxford English Dictionary and the contributive efforts of volunteer readers in The Meaning of Everything. Without monetary gains, volunteers sent in their slips of illustrative uses of words to the Scriptorium. Here was a network, though inhibited by the slow pace at the time of publishing and the post, which succeeded because most involved, shared a desire to contribute.
bolero on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
interesting account of the 70 year making of the monumental OED, the methodology, struggles, editors, volunteers. Recommended.
GeekGoddess on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very readable book on the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, how it came to be, and the main characters in the development of the book, including the Civil War surgeon W. C. Minor, who was a prisoner in England's Bedlam Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Griff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great companion piece to The Professor and the Madman, providing a further glimpse into the history and people that brought to fruition the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester has a way of making history vital - bringing the human dimension to the fore. This book makes one wish time was available to be a volunteer reader, providing illustrative quotations which bring to life the history and evolution of words in the English language. It is too much to ask that some day I might own a copy of the multi-volume lexicography, but even if I did, would I have time to fully relish the bounty within?
AJBraithwaite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Simon Winchester has done a great job of drawing out the human stories behind the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary: the problems getting the project of the ground, the personal feuds, the huge amount of effort involved in keeping it going and in bringing it to completion.There's plenty of humour in the book and a sizeable scattering of interesting lexicographical titbits from the work itself. A fascinating, accessible read.
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This fairly slim volume packs in tons of information about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, a massive undertaking begun in the 1850s, the first edition of which was not completed until 1928, and under revision for a 3rd edition today. Though sometimes getting bogged down in details, this is an overall fascinating account of the dictionary, from the recognition of a need for one to the ongoing revisions necessary as the English language continues to change.Winchester's love for words and the OED comes through in his prose riddled with words (fittingly enough) that will expand your vocabulary -- "gallimaufry," "polymathic," and "oleaginous" to name a few. Furthermore, his research shines through as one gets the sense that he's telling only a fraction of the stories he could. Even as I learned more about the history of the OED and came away with an appreciation of the impossible size of the project, my interest in learning more was whetted.
tikitu-reviews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Light but fun. Lots of amusing anecdotes, but nothing that I felt drawn to investigating further. Nicely written, but nothing special.
Stbalbach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not unlike Wikipedia, the OED was assembled by mostly unpaid volunteers over the course of many generations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is perhaps the most impressive reference work ever made. I was enthralled and captivated. Amazing story. Easy read, Winchesters second best book. Lots of lessons here for collaborative group projects.
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The epic history of the creation of the vast Oxford English Dictionary.This book is absorbing even if you have already read Simon Winchester's prequel, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, the story of one of the OED's major contributors. (The S of C is called something else in the US.)Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the OED is its democratic conception. Without an army of unpaid contributors offering their research unpaid, often for decades, the OED would not exist. One wonders not that one person could devote so much selfless effort for the love of words, but that so many such people exist.Another fascinating aspect of the story is the sheer logistical challenge of collating and sifting so much material in the age of the inkwell. One sees the 19th century getting to grips with the corporate managerial problems of the 21st century...and not doing a bad job at all!
xicanti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
All too often, nonfiction with an interesting premise gets bogged down when the author takes a dry, overly scholarly approach. I'm pleased to report that that isn't at all the case here. Though Winchester's take is decidedly scholarly, he imbues his writing with such obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter that the book is a pure delight to read. I enjoyed every page and found myself rushing to my dictionary as soon as I was done, eager to examine just how it was put together.
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