It might not be a coincidence that a small torrent of books on the English language should come along all at once. Nor that one of them, Lynne Truss's trim essay on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Profile, 9.99 [pounds sterling]), should turn out to be this year's surprise Christmas hit. At a time when most of the debates about national identity trip over quarrelling notions of racial, religious and ethnic rights, we stand in urgent need of ground on which all the varieties of modern Briton can meet. In the past, Britishness was presented as a matter of blood and birthright, as a racial characteristic--but this is no longer tenable. So the appearance of such works is a reminder that the binding agent in our national life is our language. We speak, therefore we are. In their different but complementary ways, these books describe the extent to which our entire culture, its triumphs and its iniquities, is inscribed in the words we use every day.
In The Adventure of English: the biography of a language (Hodder & Stoughton, 20 [pounds sterling]), Melvyn Bragg takes the high road and strides confidently through the origins and growth of English, from the Celtic-Roman-Germanic stew of early times, past Chaucer and Shakespeare, through global exploration and American improvisation and out into the modern world where it emerges as Singlish (Singaporean English) or Taglish (Tagalog and English, as spoken in Sri Lanka). The project began life as a series of radio programmes, so it is concise as well as learned. In making English the heroic protagonist of an adventure, however, Bragg may personify it too crisply for some tastes. "As English spread," he writes, "it began to chafe at the bonds and then to cut loose." Such Frankensteinian imagery overlooks the extent to which language remains the servant of those who use it. Bragg sees it as a wild and wilful beast, dragging its hapless owner behind it; but a language, as someone once remarked, is only dialect with a navy.
Still, it gives us an impressive and sage view of the big picture. Bragg leaves it to others to inspect the finer points. And in The Meaning of Everything: the story of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 12.99 [pounds sterling]), Simon Winchester finds himself awed by the stupendous nature of such a task. These days, our idea of a major project is a millennial theme park; a hundred years ago, people had grander aspirations. It has often been fashionable to mock Victorians for their strait-laced and narrow ways, but the OED was a momentous task--the "greatest enterprise in history" indeed. At its launch party in 1928, the three-times prime minister Stanley Baldwin surveyed the ten volumes (an amazing 15,490 pages, 414,825 words and 1,861,200 illustrative quotations) and said: "Our histories, our novels, our poems, they are all in this one book." It was true. It had taken 70 years to compile the OED, an extraordinary communal effort in which a large team of contributors read, amassed and arranged the component parts of English literature and culture from A to Z.
Winchester tells the story with an attentive and precise sense of decorum. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge, put up an oak bookshelf with 54 pigeonholes, slightly underestimating the amount of space needed to house the six million quotations that would eventually be gathered. As the work proceeds, inch by inch, line by line, column by column, the full nature of the Sisyphean task swims into focus: the language is a moving target, shifting and alive. By the time the task was finished, it would be time to start again. The team that created the OED were like valiant farmers getting in the harvest during a storm. "The English language has a centre," John Murray wrote in his celebrated introduction, "but no discernible circumference."
Are mere words the centre, however? …