Book Review: The Meaning of Everything

Books are a joy to read multiple times, because if they’re good, one gleans more information and enjoyment every time. This is my second time reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I quite enjoyed it. It is the tale of how the Oxford English Dictionary or OED came to be, and what an enormous undertaking it was.

This book actually started with a different book that Winchester wrote called The Surgeon of Crowthorne, later to be retitled, about the contribution of a murderer and madman to the OED. The Meaning of Everything describes the full scope of the project.

I have to say the beginning chapter describing the difficulties and strangenesses of the English language compared to others, although interesting is far less so than the stories of the men that follow. Philology, or the study of language and languages, can be nearly as tedious as advanced math, if not more so. There’s also a bit about the history of dictionaries in general. The famous Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, and it was the book of reference for the next hundred years. Others who tried their hand at dictionaries were The Brothers Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm, who had a lot of people reading for their work. Webster’s Dictionary from America was a great success also, and not too long after that The Philological Society in England started talking about making their own dictionary of the English language.

Dean Trench gave the initial paper and presentation on the subject in 1857 entitled “On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries.” The main deficiency was simply that no dictionary was comprehensive enough. The scope of the Oxford English Dictionary was to be huge, recording not only the various definitions of all words in and taken in to the English language over time, but also the origins of those words. This book was to be the authority on the language. Neither Trench or any other member of the Philological Society foresaw that the project would take 70 years to complete, and the enlisting of hundreds of readers to help them.

Readers for a dictionary are necessary. These are people who read specific books, articles, etc., to find unique or definitive uses of words. That they had so many volunteers really shows how smart and well-read people were at that time. They would send their findings on carefully sized slips of paper that were stored in massive cases of pigeon holes.

The first two editors or project heads for the dictionary did not last long. The first, Chenevix Trench, burnt out quickly, and the second, the diligent but sickly Herbert Coleridge died in a year. The third one, Frederick Furnivall, lasted much longer, but was not fit for the job. He was an eccentric who ended up irritating a lot of people and was overly interested in young women. Thankfully, Furnivall himself realized he was no good at it and recruited one James Murray to take over.

James Murray was amazing–all these men were–having dropped out of school at fourteen, as his family was too poor, yet teaching himself numerous languages and having a vociferous appetite for knowledge of all kinds. He was a bank clerk and later a teacher, beloved by his students because it seemed like he knew everything about everything.

Rival to Murray was Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College in Oxford. He at first tried to hijack the project from Murray, causing Murray to threaten to leave, but another great man, a peacemaker named Henry Hucks Gibbs (later to be a Lord) whose family made money in the guano industry intervened. Eventually Jowett became one of Murray’s greatest supporters.

Some interesting readers, contributors, editors and subeditors of the dictionary were: J.R.R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings fame, Fitzedward Hall, an American who taught Sanskrit in England and later became a hermit who found good work working on the OED, and William Chester Minor, another American who was schizophrenic and a murderer placed in an asylum in England. Reading for the OED was his therapy, and notable enough that Winchester first wrote about about him before proceeding to this story.

It’s quite a tale, and The Meaning of Everything is littered appropriately with a plethora of words to look up in the dictionary. Winchester describes the difficulties the editors had with certain letters of the alphabet, especially finding word origins and the like. The end result was a body of 12 volumes that would never really be done as languages are continually in flux. The men who worked on this project were shockingly good at languages, as were the numerous readers that sent in their slips. I have only met a few people in my life who have learned ten or more languages and it boggles my mind, as I seem to only pick up a few words here and there. It’s quite a super power, that one. One of the editors, Henry Bradley, taught himself Russian in only fourteen days.

This story of the beloved OED is fascinating and I think would make a great movie or documentary. The OED today is mostly online with a variety of print editions available. If you are interested in reading obscure or new books for the dictionary, you can go to and see the requirement for submitting digitals slips of words. Another aspect the dictionary is currently working on is the confirmation of all of Samuel Johnson’s examples he used in his dictionary, tracking down what work they came from. On the website it sounds like OED editors are assigned to this task and there’s not a lot left to find, but if you are an avid reader of, say, Francis Bacon, and come across the quote, “the chymists have a liquor called water of depart,” be sure to contact them and let them know where you found it.

Loss of Freedom

Just a quick item here. It seems as if WordPress is now in the business of censoring political speech, and is starting to ask Conservatives of “wrong think” to move elsewhere. As my readership is small, it may be some time before they ask me to leave or cancel my account, but if that does happen, I will simply be found at under Pixie Beldona. (Sorry, haven’t posted much on there at this time). With such, frankly, fascist, censorship going on, it may be soon that all webhosting sites will deplatform anyone not of a leftist and/or globalist mindset, and I don’t have enough money to buy and run my own server. I’d much rather focus on writing. For now Gab is good and for free speech, and hopefully will stay that way. I urge you again, please, please pray for our country. We have the boot of tyranny preparing to slam down on us, should we not rise against it.

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