Dog Eared

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"The Word Detective" is a Revealing Look at the Life of an OED Gumshoe

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online is, for a word-loving fellow like myself, the greatest thing in the multiverse. I look forward to the quarterly debates with glee, and I relish every chance to dig through the digital version for an article I'm writing—or just for fun. Without the OED Online, I'd be miserable and forlorn. I take its endless, searchable wonders for granted.

But the OED, preposterous as it now sounds, used to be a whole bunch of heavy "books" on a "shelf," whatever those words mean! Getting from that medieval situation to the easy searching of today wasn't an easy process. Thanks to numerous anecdotes about the old and new ways of the lexicography, I quite enjoyed The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary, the memoir of John Simpson, former Chief Editor. Simpson was a participant and prime mover in the huge changes to the OED, which saw the dictionary finally being produced, "from the computer database, not from copper plates." Because of the unique insights into the most important and impressive dictionary in English, this is a book any word lover should enjoy.

Early in Word Detective, Simpson laments that, "Nobody thinks dictionaries are written." This book is a rebuttal to the idea that dictionaries are just there, as if handed down from the Word Gods. Simpson—who worked for the OED from 1976 to 2013, when he retired as Chief Editor—is in special position to explain the painstaking investigation that fuels the OED, where he rose from naïve newbie to experienced editor. He explains the many jobs of a lexicographer, and I was particularly fascinated by how reading for a historical dictionary—which is founded on illustrative examples—changes the way you read, not always in the most pleasant way.

Anyone interested in words knows the experience of stopping a reading session because a word seems cool or unusual. But for the OED reader, this experience is heightened, and it sounds almost maddening. Simpson describes how reading with an eye for word uses that would enrich the dictionary spoils the reading experience but enhances the dictionary, as OED readers develop their sense for useful examples, while never trusting themselves too much. As Simpson puts it, "…lexicographers should never accept anything at face value."

In each chapter, Simpson shows the power and pleasure of such disruptions. When a word plays an important role in his life—such as serendipity or shenanigans—Simpson makes an aside to give the history of the word. These asides make this book twice as enjoyable for word-lovers: Simpson demonstrates as well as explains his job. This approach to the memoir reminds me a little of another memoir I'm in the middle of reading. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston recently wrote A Life in Parts, an autobiography in which each chapter is named for a role: whether from his long acting career (Walter White, Professor Flipnoodle, Tim Whatley) or life (Son, Brother, Minister, Unemployed Actor). Similarly, Simpson makes you understand a life of word research by taking you down many lexical alleys and side streets. He doesn't beat you over the head with the detective metaphor, but you can feel a patient investigator's approach in his explanation for those asides: "…I wanted to demonstrate the fascination that more or less any word in the language holds, if you can be bothered to settle back and look at it for a while without rushing on to the next thing."

The OED's journey from print to digital is a huge part of Simpson's story, and that story is full of anecdotes that should excite word nerds—and make anyone who appreciates hard work nod in appreciation. Amazingly, the OED was transferred by hand: everything was typed. This was considered more careful than scanning, a consideration validated by an experience with "industry experts" who were invited to scan a few pages, then let the OED editors check the results. As Simpson dryly puts it: "Curiously, we never saw any of them again. Perhaps some went mad, and maybe others were sighted selling ice cream on the sea-front in Brighton. But they certainly didn't come back to us with scanned text that we could make use of."

Simpson shatters many illusions about lexicographers, but he reinforces one: that folks absorbed in the investigation of words would have a dry wit. After a discussion of how, in the early stages of planning the Online OED, the task of what to include mushroomed, multiplied, and somehow expanded again, Simpson writes, "There are often good reasons for avoiding meetings if you could manage it." Amen.

Simpson has written a book that should be enjoyed by all lexical enthusiasts. He gives a rare look behind the curtain at a rigorous, scientific approach to words that's beyond most of us amateurs. Simpson says, "Language continually changes, and every change is a puzzle." Few of us will ever be puzzle-solving word detectives on the level of Simpson, but thanks to this great book, the work of the OED is far less mysterious.

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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.