Dog Eared

Books we love

An Insider's Look at the Creation (and Endless Recreation) of the Oxford English Dictionary

These are great times to be a fan of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED Online continues to be an unparalleled word resource with humongous quarterly updates. Books such as former Chief Editor John Simpson's Word Detective offer a record of how the dictionary moved from the physical world of notecards and copper plates to today's digital wonderland. There are no lack of older books on the OED, such as the James Murray biography Caught in the Web of Words and Simon Winchester's classic The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But just as the OED will never be finished documenting the English language, there's always more to tell about the OED itself. As a mathematician friend likes to tell me, a smaller infinity is still infinity. So the latest addition to the historical record of our greatest historical dictionary—The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by lexicographer Peter Gilliver—is most welcome. This self-described "project history" offers depth, breadth, and insights aplenty.

To fully appreciate this book, first take a look at any entry from the OED Online. Look at the etymological notes. Check the different meanings. Marvel at rare words like aerobat, which sounds like a Batman gizmo from the 1960s but is actually a nonce word from the 1800s for a type of flying machine. Every single thing you see had to be decided on at some point by the OED editors and publishers.

Seeing the evolving criteria of what to include and what not to include is fascinating. For example, in 1860, editor Herbert Coleridge wondered about words such as devilship (a play on lordship), be-stockinged (a so-called "quaint word), jeux d'esprit (described hilariously by Coleridge as "literary fungi"), and pschologer (a rare alternative to psychologist). Foreign expression were another can of worms. Such discussions of "What's a worthy word?" are just as common and meaningful today, but they have a special importance for the dictionary that's the most complete record of English ever attempted.

As Gilliver takes the reader from the OED's complex, multiple points of origin to the present day, readers should feel a sense of awe and, paradoxically, better about their own limitations. If you've ever missed a deadline and felt bad about it, you're in good company, because the various chief editors and sub-editors have missed more than a few. Gilliver notes that second editor Henry Bradley was present for an "ominous anniversary" in 1889—10 years of working on the dictionary, which was supposed to result in full publication. The reality is they were barely finished with two letters. The massive conceptualization and labor involved in creating the OED feels equivalent to the building of a pyramid. Even when you see how they did it, you still wonder how they did it.

While tracing the history of the OED era by era, editor by editor, and dilemma by dilemma, Gilliver provides asides on particular words and issues—such as a sidebar on rime, a spelling of rhyme that was losing currency but was still preferred by Murray. These sidebars on words like put-up job, content, miserabilistic, strafe, and Vaseline—are welcome and similar sidebars in Simpson's recent memoir on his life with the OED. I especially enjoyed a section on the question of the longest word in the language, which at one point was thought to be disproportionableness. That word now seems tiny as a Yorkie-poo next to current record-holder pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis.

Gilliver's writing style is crisp and clear, synthesizing a ludicrous amount of characters and events into a coherent record. I’m sure the author would approve of the fact that one or two of his word choices sent me back to the OED itself, likely due to differences between British and American English. When Gilliver wrote that an editor had “suffered from indifferent health for some years,” I got the gist, though I had never heard indifferent used to describe health before. So I consulted the OED, and sure enough, it’s had three submeanings that inform that use: neither good nor bad, pretty bad, and bad in a medical sense. You could learn something from even Gilliver’s word choices, I reckon.

This meticulously researched book isn’t for the casual reader. The footnotes are plentiful, and in my humble opinion, much better than endnotes, which I never seem to have the energy to go read. Still, I confess to zoning out for a few topics. The logistical aspects of financing the dictionary didn’t grab my attention, which may explain why I could use more financing myself. This is an ultra-dense book you’re probably not going to want to bring to the beach.

But if you’re a hardcore word enthusiast and OED-aholic, it’s going to be hard to resist. Gilliver has done an impressive task that substantially adds to the record of the OED, which is surely the first wonder of the lexical world.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Dog Eared.

Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.