A Book That Is Almost Too Good for Words

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Book That Is Almost Too Good for Words


Byline: SIMON WINCHESTER

BRITISH GREATS

Simon Winchester ON THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY My first set came from a bookshop hidden in a rabbit warren of streets in Hong Kong during a typhoon back in the early Eighties. Seventeen tombstone-sized volumes, all with gold-lettered, dark blue bindings, many wrapped in slipcovers the colour of clotted cream. Too heavy, I supposed, for some expat to ship home; I promptly snapped up the lot for 9,000 Hong Kong dollars ([pounds sterling]830 at today's exchange rate), though the Chinese saleswoman insisted she couldn't deliver. I had to find a taxi and cram the books into the boot in sheeting rain, the thunder roaring and the gales whipping through the canyons

of Wanchai. It was a memorable beginning to my life with the OED.

Since then, no house I have ever occupied has been without at least one copy of this extraordinary book.

If I can be permitted a mixed metaphor that Sir James Murray, the best-known editor of the OED, would probably in this one case allow, I thus live, breathe, swim and otherwise take my ease in a limitless, Oxford-provided ocean of words: the entire English vocabulary, aa to zyxt, is on eternal hand, silent and ubiquitous like oxygen itself. It is a book I cherish and I love, both for serendipitous joy and for reasons essential.

So essential, for me and for anyone whose passion, need or fancy is for English and its words, that it sometimes seems as though the dictionary in general, and this one in particular, has been around for ever.

And yet it has not. The dictionary as we now know it is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago,

such dictionaries as existed were mere books of translation. The notion of an alphabetical list of English words was wholly unimagined.

It took Samuel Johnson to create the first true and truly grand catalogue of the English language - a language which by 1755, its publication date, was well on its way to becoming the dominant speaking-tongue of the planet. His two-volume work, with 40,000 entries, became the defining standard for the lexicographer's art.

Until, that is, 1857, when a learned divine named Richard Chenevix Trench issued a challenge: Johnson was limited and unreliable. The book defined only a small fraction of what philologists believed was out there; countless definitions were either wrong or too eccentric. The definition of oats, for example - a grain commonly given to horses but which in Scotland feeds the people - was not the kind of disinterested entry a proper dictionary should have. …

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