The Meaning of Everything
The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press, 260 pp., $25
IN "THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING," Simon Winchester takes as his subject the making of the "Oxford English Dictionary" and its eccentric editors and even more eccentric contributors, the Victorian working conditions and privileges that supported those who worked on it, and its triumphant publication in spite of vigorous and frequently bizarre obstacles.
That it ever got done at all is a great achievement. English has more words than any other language--for various historical reasons, beginning with the fact that the British Isles were successively colonized by Celts, Romans, Angles and Saxons, Danes, and the Norman French. Individually, each language contributed words to modern English--Anglo-Saxon and French, more; Celtic (breeches, pool) and Latin (wine, butter, pepper, inch) less. And taken together, these sources combined to help establish the distaste in English for synonyms.
Among linguists, in fact, English is notorious for this phenomenon of desynonymization, in which each word brought into the language means something more, often much more, particular than it did in its original. Thus, for example, studio and study both come from the Latin word studium (via Italian and French, respectively) and both mean "a place to do mental work." In any sensible language, that would be the end of it. But English can't stand for two words to mean the same thing, and so we distinguish the words into rooms for two different species of mental work. As a result of this desynonymizing process, there are no true synonyms in the English language--except, it is said, for furze and gorse. Such particularity drives nonnative speakers crazy. Indeed, the ordinary English speaker needs at least twice as many words in his active vocabulary as speakers of other European languages.
The diverse vocabulary of English resulting from its various colonizers was augmented during the Renaissance by scholars' and artists' determination to bring into the language as many new words from Latin and Greek as possible in order to achieve the "rebirth of learning."
Curiously, English greatly expanded its vocabulary at the same time as the French were attempting to cast out all "foreign" words as a part of their rebirth of learning. Thus, the single word conscience in modern French serves where English demands three different words: consciousness, conscience, and conscientiousness--a three-to-one difference between the two languages, which is about what the average speaker in each would use.
English has continued to bring foreign words into the language as a matter of habit, helped by the British imperial conquests and the spread of American commerce. Meanwhile, as James Murray, editor of the first edition of the "Oxford English Dictionary," remarked in his article on the "English Language" for the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," words that were once technical words seem to pass naturally into common use: "Ache, diamond, stomach, comet, organ, tone, ball, carte are familiar, once-technical. Commercial, social, artistic or literary contact has also led to the adoption of numerous words from modern European languages. . . . Thus from French soirée, séance, dépôt, débris, programme, prestige; from Italian bust, canto, folio, cartoon, concert, regatta, ruffian; from Portuguese caste, palaver; from Dutch yacht, skipper, schooner, sloop."
AND YET, despite these natural English tendencies, no one, not even its originators and editors, guessed that English contained hundreds of thousands of words--until the "Oxford English Dictionary" finally put out its first edition in 1928. All previous incarnations of the English dictionary--a new literary form started in the seventeenth century--depended largely upon the author's command of words. Even Samuel Johnson's great 1755 dictionary, a household staple in England for two centuries, was founded essentially on the words Johnson knew as an educated man (with a little help from his friends).
The "Oxford English Dictionary" proposed instead to register all the words in the language. And so the editors recruited volunteers to peruse books, pamphlets, periodicals, and technical writings from the earliest days of modern English. The material to be read was divided into three periods: 1250-1526, 1526-1674 (here Cruden's "Concordance" to the King James Bible was invaluable), and 1674 to the present. Thus, it was thought, one could find lines illustrating every word in each of its senses, including the earliest sense of the word when it came into the language.