“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

This book sounds dry, but it’s not! John Simpson worked for/on the Oxford English Dictionary for 40 years, but never got bored, and his autobiography, likewise, is consistently interesting. (Yes, there is a bound, hard back copy of the OED in my house, two volumes, along with a magnifying glass. Yes, I have consulted it. But not often.)

The OED deals with the origins of words, as well as their contemporary meanings. As technology changes, unexpectedly old uses of words are often uncovered.

Where does the OED find its words? When Simpson began at the OED, they still employed readers, a technique highlighted in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. With this technique, books for perusal had to be carefully selected, in order to keep the volunteer readers interested.

Now, digital search techniques allow a far wider range. The OED looks for unfamiliar and/or new words everywhere – in catalogs and manuals and popular literature. They do require that a word achieve some level of use. A made up term that is used just once won’t turn up in the dictionary, but a word like “muggle” (non-magical person, JK Rowling) is included, because it has passed into general speech.

I realized (to my surprise) that I am a word snob! I’ve been rejecting neologisms like “blog” when I play Banagrams! Oh, dear… Time to loosen up a little. I’ve also rejected words on the basis of foreign origin, when Simpson would welcome them in. Words like “taco”.

Throughout the book, Simpson includes short essays on interesting words. Like “paraphernalia”, “redux” and “juggernaut”, as well as very familiar words like “marriage” and “deadline”.

The OED also includes phrases – up to three words, or is it four? For example “the thin red line”. Where was it first used? What did it mean then? How is it used now?

I wonder what would have happened if the information revolution hadn’t made it possible to convert the OED into an online “database”? Language is changing so quickly! I better learn to enjoy it.


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