by Cara Gardner
It took wordsmiths and workaholics more than 70 years to complete the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, a feat of etymological engineering that has been compared to the world's most fantastic cathedrals and coliseums; indeed, it is a temple constructed with not with stone but with words. In his toast during the celebration of its completion, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called the OED the "greatest enterprise of its kind in history."
Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (newly out in paperback) pays homage to the architectural feat that today sits so humbly, so dustily, upon bookshelves throughout the world.
Britain's Philological Society, formed of linguists and scholars and worshipers of words, first commissioned the dream that was the OED. For them the ultimate challenge was to document the then enigmatic expanse of the English tongue as no one had before. Almost a generation later, the dictionary was published and celebrated worldwide. The original OED held 15,490 pages of single-spaced small print, 414,825 words, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. But, as with all historical works, it is in continual revision. Language changes like the land - in swift uprisings and in gradual conditionings. English, especially, is fluid, remarkably diverse and open - it grows and expands while other languages struggle to remain "pure." As Winchester writes, "English is a language that simply cannot be fixed, nor can its use ever be absolutely laid down. It changes constantly; it grows with an almost exponential joy. It evolves eternally; its words alter their sense and their meanings subtly, slowly, or speedily according to fashion and need."
You need to have a strong curiosity about languages and history to pull through Winchester's 250 pages. But even without a fascination for English, it's fun to find out that the word "ketchup" was derived from Cantonese, or that most our legal terminology is rooted in old Norman French. For trivia buffs and word worshipers, The Meaning of Everything is a good read.
Publication date: 11/04/04