October Reader's Den — "The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary" Wrap-up & Reading List
But of course it wasn’t finished. It never could be, it never would be, and it never will be.
Welcome back to the Reader’s Den for the final week of our discussion of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester! The book tells the tale of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), completed in 1928, but as the author notes at the beginning of the epilogue, it can never really be complete, since the English language itself is forever changing.
In 1879, James Murray issued his first Appeal to Readers, seeking volunteers to read and make extracts from a lengthy book list spanning more than five centuries. The editors of the third edition, currently in progress, also rely on contributions from volunteers. Details about how to submit useful evidence for the dictionary can be found on the OED website. The OED also has a YouTube presence. Check out their videos to learn more about how dictionaries are made from the people who edit them.
If you'd like to read more about words, or dictionaries and lexicographers, a variety of suggestions are offered below. Or maybe you enjoyed the pace and tone and information imparted in The Meaning of Everything, but would like to move on to other subjects. Here are some other authors who, like Winchester, are known for making history come alive in their detailed and engaging work.
Please improve these lists by adding your own recommendations through the comments form below!
Some Writers Who Make History Come Alive:
Nathaniel Philbrick on American history:
- In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
- The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
- Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
- Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
Read Kerri Wallace's blog post about In the Heart of the Sea.
Stacy Schiff, biographer:
- Cleopatra: A Life
- A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
- Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)
Ross King on art history:
- Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
- The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism
- Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
Mark Kurlansky on food and social history:
- The Big Oyster: New York on the Half Shell
- Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
- Salt: A World History
Read Carmen Nigro's blog post on The Big Oyster.
Dava Sobel on science history:
- Gallileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
- Longitude: The Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
- A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos
Find more exciting non-fiction reads in Frank Collerius's blog post, Page Turners!
Words, Words, Words by David Crystal. In this conversational book, the eminent author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and dozens of other works on linguistics offers a joyful exploration of the world of words, including everything from "wordsmithery" to "wordlore" to "wordmasters."
Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea. It took Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivall, James Murray and their successors nearly 70 years to complete the first edition of the OED. Recently, one man decided to dedicate a year to reading all 20 volumes of the 2nd edition, cover to cover. Ammon Shea recounts his intense lexical experience and offers some obscure word finds for delectation.
The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings. The author takes us on a lively tour of the English language from Beowulf to today, describing the origins of thousands of English words and illustrating how history is reflected in our language.
Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman. The authors offer clear and entertaining discussions of American versus British English, split infinitives, and other topics, while debunking popular language myths related to word origins and “proper” usage. Their Grammarphobia website is also informative and fun.
Alphabet Juice and Alphabetter Juice by Roy Blount, Jr. In addition to being a well-known humorist, Blount, Jr. is also a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary. In Alphabet Juice, he sinks his teeth into the "energies, gists, and spirits of letters, words, and combinations thereof; their roots, bones, innards, piths, pips, and secret parts, tinctures, tonics, and essences."
The author discussed Alphabet Juice with Jean Strouse, Director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, in October 2008. Audio and video recordings of the conversation are available on the NYPL website.
Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words by Barbara Wallraff. Even with the more than 600,000 words that are included in the OED Online, we sometimes feel the need for a word that has yet to be coined. With the help of readers of her Word Fugitives column in The Atlantic, the author seeks to fill some of these lacunae, with thought-provoking and entertaining results.
Collected On Language columns by William Safire. And, of course, there are language maven William Safire’s many books collecting the best of his "On Language" columns from the New York Times Magazine. You Could Look It Up (1988), Quoth the Maven (1993), and No Uncertain Terms (2003) are a few of these.
The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (originally titled The Cynic's Word Book). Most of the satirical definitions in this "reference" book are still quite funny and apropos a century later. Various free versions of the Devil's Dictionary are available on the Web.
Are you interested in further tales of lexicographers, not all of whom were simply “harmless drudges,” as defined in Johnson's Dictionary? James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson set the standard for literary biography in the 18th century and is still widely read today. Here are a few recent titles, as well.
Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings
Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Peter Martin
The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus by Joshua C. Kendall
Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary by Lynda Mugglestone
Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED by Charlotte Brewer
The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner