Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

A Memoir of the Life of a Dictionary Editor and the Histories of F**k and Other Curious Words

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

A Memoir of the Life of a Dictionary Editor and the Histories of F**k and Other Curious Words

Article excerpt

A Memoir of the Life of a Dictionary Editor and the Histories of F**k and Other Curious Words John Simpson. The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary: A Memoir. New York: Basic Books, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-465-06069-6. $27.99. 6-1/8X9-1/4". 368pp.

The author of this memoir is John Simpson, the decades-long editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. But is not so much a narrative of what John has done, or where he went, or who he married, but rather of how he has shaped the English language in his years as editor. He explains the thought-process and research steps he has taken before making decisions to add new words like "online," or delete old ones that are out of use. He is now retired and an emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.

The narrative begins with how John started working at OED, and what he studied in school. Across the text there are sections in a distinct font and in a separated block that explain the research and history of isolated words John researched, such as, "intrigued" (xiv-xv). The explained words are those that naturally or unnaturally appear in the description of John's life. For example, as he is talking about meeting his future spouse, Hilary, he says it was: "Serendipity, perhaps" before giving the explanation of the word in a section at the end of a long paragraph where he describes Hilary as "talkative," and "very smart, but not depressingly intellectual" (1-2).

Sadly, this book is unreadable. First, even the chapter titles are so general that they fail to communicate what unique message will be related in them. One chapter is even named, "Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk," which appears to be just a nonsensical set of letters. While I am a bit curious to figure out if all of these are actually words he has added to the Dictionary, I don't want to find out enough to be drawn into the chapter. It is indeed a chapter that defines LOL and subfusc (220-2), and even "windfucker" (226). The latter grabbed my attention as did a reference to the D. H. Lawrence' Lady Chatterley's Lover Penguin case against "gross indecency," which apparently legalized the use of the word "fuck" in general, so that it "boldy" appeared in the Penguin English Dictionary of 1965, followed by OED's equally brave inclusion of this word in 1972. …

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