The Meaning of Everything: a new preface

The Meaning of Everything: a new preface

The following is an abridged version of the preface to the new edition of Simon Winchester’s highly-acclaimed The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Lexicography is among the slowest of callings, and those who labor in the great dictionary headquarters around the world – those ‘harmless drudges’ as Samuel Johnson mischievously called them nearly three centuries ago – can be much likened to snails.

You seldom see them moving; and yet, look away and then back, and lo!, they have indeed moved, and have made unexpected progress while your back was turned.

It is now ninety years since the publication of the twelve volumes of the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is 163 years since the first London gathering that decided there were ‘deficiencies’ in the English dictionaries then available. It is 161 years since poor, sickly Herbert Coleridge hammered together a set of wooden pigeon-holes and began collecting in them the first of the famous ‘slips’ on which words, with illustrative quotations submitted by readers all around the world, were to be sorted, eventually to be edited and placed elegantly onto the hundreds, then thousands, of dictionary pages.

Little has changed, either since the nineteenth century in the actual process of word-collection – except, of course, that electronics has made the process very much quicker and more comprehensive than the early editors could imagine. The explosion of computer-based resources available to the eighty staff who now work on the OED – more than at any time in the dictionary’s history – might be thought to have massively accelerated the race to create the Third Edition. But no. Nor would anyone ever be so indelicate as to suggest that a race of any kind is or ever has been underway. The progress continues at an outwardly leisurely pace, slow and steady in the determination to ensure not so much the vastness of the next edition (which they say may be complete in another twenty years) but its exact correctness.

Two basic kinds of work dominate. On the one hand there is the revision of the text of 2nd Edition, which was published in 1989; and on the other, the acquisition and defining of entirely new-made words, or new inclusions from abroad into the English word stock. But there is in addition one other feature of great – and new – importance:   the injection into all of these entries – thanks to some very clever computational magic – of an immense body of synonyms for every word, synonyms that come from Oxford’s other major lexical achievement of the past fifteen years, The Historical Thesaurus to the OED, and which published in 2009.

Take an entry – utopia, say. This (without a capital initial, which specifically relates to Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same title) was initially defined in 1926 for the First Edition, then again in 1989 for the Second and again in 2013 for the Third. But now, if the tiny blue instruction ‘Thesaurus’  beside the entry is clicked, so we find on our screens, and with dates of first use,  such words and phrases as heaven, land of behest, Cockaigne, eutopia, and El Dorado.

There is also, rather unexpectedly, the phrase horny port – which if you click again brings up two further entries, including that for an 17th century poet named Drummond and his line Dametas dream’d he saw his wife at sport, and found that sight was through the horny port.

Serendipitous pleasure always one of the great charms of the printed version of the OED, but a pleasure perhaps not readily apparent to users of the electronic version. Now, though, with the addition of the Historical Thesaurus,  such pleasing expansions to utopia as horny port can be readily stumbled upon – a realization which even stalwart supporters of the printed book (in which no such discovery could ever be made) will surely now admit.

Those on the OED team who perform the work of revision – and they generally work in pairs these days, both to speed things up and to fact-check one another as they go – are now approximately halfway through their labors. The results of this work – updated definitions, ever-earlier citations of a word’s historical use, subtle new senses and meanings – are as a result to be spotted more and more often throughout the book. Fewer and fewer are the occasions when you look for a definition – the word critique, say, chosen at random – only to find beside it a cautionary note: This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1893).  Newly revised entries are published online every three months, giving the OED a sprightlier feel to it, as if it has at last managed to unleash itself from the undertow of Victorian times and the drag of Empire.

Fifteen years ago, when my book, The Meaning of Everything, a history of the making of the OED, was published the English language was a little less substantial than it is today. During the subsequent decade and a half it has been enriched not simply by the discovery of new senses and meanings of existing words, but by the acceptance and entry into the lexicon of entirely new words. And so – do welcome into the language such readily recognizable newcomers as Anthropocene, bling, blogosphere and Bluetooth, clickbait and cybersquat, declutter and dot-bomb and Enviropig – and Brexit.

Thus does OED proceed, collecting, revising, defining, searching, and it proceeds truly at a snail’s-pace – a phrase that was first noted as long ago as the early fifteenth century. But look away, just for the blink of fifteen years, and then look back and yes!, you realize: the snail has indeed moved. So much has happened, both to the vast expanse of the English language, and to the great dictionary that records its twists and turns and its endless self enrichment, and the story of which is told in the pages that follow.

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