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Our language's defining moment

The Meaning of Everything The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary Simon Winchester Oxford University Press: 260 pp., $25

October 19, 2003|Robert McCrum | Robert McCrum is the literary editor of the Observer in London and the coauthor of "The Story of English."

The English language, brought to the shores of Britain by an obscure Germanic tribe, the Anglii, during the 5th century, is now roughly 1,500 years old. For the first 1,000 years of its existence it was forged by three invasions and a cultural revolution into the crafty hybrid described by Daniel Defoe as "your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English."

Between 449 and 1500, a series of violent and dramatic events created a new language that, by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, had become intelligible to modern ears and eyes without the aid of subtitles. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, the language bloomed in rich, unregulated splendor, a first flowering to which subsequent generations will always look back in wonder.

After the feast came the reckoning. Shakespeare and his predecessors had experimented with a youthful innocence that made the language sing. After such a virtuoso performance, a new mood began to prevail. The scientific and political revolutions of the 17th century swelled the vocabulary of English almost beyond recognition. The Elizabethan extravaganza was no longer appropriate. A new precision was called for: The language should be sent to school.

Canny publishers, identifying a middle-class market that wanted to see order brought out of chaos, began to commission rudimentary dictionaries. A new age of regulation began, culminating in the publication of Samuel Johnson's celebrated Dictionary in 1755, a famously eccentric monument to the English amateur tradition whose definitions of "oats" and "Whigs" are still guaranteed to raise a smile.

Johnson, a genius of common sense, labored for nine years almost alone on his trailblazing volume in Gough Square, a few steps north of Fleet Street. As well as providing a rough and ready prototype for the dictionaries that would come after, Johnson established a pattern of solitary dedication in the service of words, "the daughters of earth," as he put it. (Things, by contrast, were "the sons of heaven.")

There's something in the English lexicographical tradition that brings out the madness in the English blood. Simon Winchester, formerly a journalist, has already explored the peculiar byways of dictionary-making in "The Professor and the Madman," a popular study of a previously overlooked eccentric American contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Plainly, Winchester found the loopiness of lexicography to his taste. In "The Meaning of Everything," a catchy title that does not quite describe the book he has written, he sets out to describe how, in the aftermath of Johnson's Dictionary, the imperial Victorians, having conquered and colonized much of the known world, set out to categorize and define the language of that empire on which the sun would never set.

The extraordinary story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a subject perfectly suited to Winchester's magpie mind. After a preliminary Cook's tour of Old, Early and Middle English, a useful survey of the first English dictionaries and the fierce commercial rivalries between British and American dictionary publishers, and a perfunctory nod in the direction of Noah Webster (a far richer character than he allows), Winchester introduces the shy, fastidious and stubborn figure of the Scotsman James Murray. In the narrative that unfolds, it is Murray, the draper's son from the Lowlands, who, through a series of Herculean tasks, eventually establishes the volumes that today are universally and collectively referred to as the OED.

Murray, in his black silk velvet biretta, seated at his high stool in his Scriptorium, a glorified garden shed, has been described before, notably in "The Web of Words" by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Murray. But Winchester gives new color to a familiar tale by placing Murray at the center of a bizarre cast of Victorian amateur philologists.

Take, for instance, Frederick Furnivall, the model for the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," whose passion for socialism and philology was surpassed only by his enthusiasm for waitresses and shopgirls. Furnivall was a founding father of the work originally known (before Oxford University became involved in the project) as the New English Dictionary. As originally planned, this dictionary was to run to 7,000 pages, costing epartment9,000 over 10 years. (In fact, the project would fill 16,000 closely printed pages, at a total cost of epartment300,000 over 54 years.) Many of those who joined up at the beginning, including Murray, were long dead by the time the final volume was launched at a magnificent dinner on Derby Day 1928.

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