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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Meaning of Everything

Title: The Meaning of Everything
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: History
Written: 2003
Length: 264 pages
Availability: The Meaning of Everything - US
The Meaning of Everything - UK
The Meaning of Everything - Canada
  • The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • With 31 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine survey of a fascinating undertaking

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 18/9/2003 Merle Rubin
Daily Telegraph . 17/11/2003 John Lanchester
Entertainment Weekly . 3/10/2003 Gregory Kirschling
Evening Standard . 3/11/2003 John Mullan
The Guardian . 15/11/2003 Steven Poole
The Independent . 31/10/2003 Andrew Rosenheim
Independent on Sunday . 26/10/2003 Mark Bostridge
The LA Times . 19/10/2003 Robert McCrum
London Rev. of Books . 20/11/2003 L. Holford-Strevens
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 12/10/2003 William Buckley Jr.
The Spectator . 1/11/2003 Christopher Howse
Sunday Telegraph . 26/10/2003 John Preston
TLS A 31/10/2003 Tom Penn
The Washington Post . 23/11/2003 Matt Schudel

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some very impressed, others not so, though most find he presents the material well.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Winchester tells the story with great verve in an easygoing, anecdotal style that is delectably readable. This book should certainly appeal to readers who enjoyed his earlier foray behind the scenes of dictionarymaking, The Professor and the Madman (...) Winchester also has a knack for making the less sensationalistic elements of lexicography just as engrossing" - Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "One of the virtues of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything is that he makes it clear just how fantastically difficult a thing the OED was to achieve." - John Lanchester, Daily Telegraph

  • "Winchester's involving and gregarious narration is nearly Dickensian. Even his footnotes twinkle." - Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Winchester's entertaining narrative is avowedly celebratory and scarcely questions the first dictionary's definitions or sources. Other books can do this. Those indefatigable Victorian autodidacts deserve their celebration." - John Mullan, Evening Standard

  • "Winchester explains well the enormous labours involved in compiling even four pages, and his notion of the OED as a triumph of Victorian engineering is apposite. (...) This is popular history that, though it is published by the august Oxford University Press itself, feels no need even to pay lip-service to 'historical principles'." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "(T)he world's most successful lexical enterprise, about which Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything provides a fascinating history." - Andrew Rosenheim, The Independent

  • "Parts of The Meaning of Everything are a slightly more detailed retelling of the earlier book. Winchester manages to kick life into what is at times unpromising material, though he occasionally resorts to caricature (a bad case of this is his buffoonish portrayal of Benjamin Jowett)." - Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday

  • "Nevertheless, he has given us a useful and entertaining study that provokes further reflections." - Leofranc Holford-Strevens, London Review of Books

  • "It is teeming with knowledge and alive with insights. Winchester handles humor and awe with modesty and cunning. His devotion to the story is the more eloquent for the cool-handedness of its telling. His prose is supremely readable, admirable in its lucid handling of lexicographical mire." - William Buckley Jr., The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Meaning of Everything is a jolly read too. (...) Though it need not detract from the readerís enjoyment much, Winchester often does not seem to know the meaning of the words he chooses to employ." - Christopher Howse, The Spectator

  • "While the likelihood of anyone succumbing to over-stimulation reading this book seems extremely slight, it is none the less a breezy, engaging and mercifully concise account of a mighty endeavour." - John Preston, Sunday Telegraph

  • "What shines through Winchester's account is his acute sense of the values that the Dictionary represents, in particular its democratic inclusiveness" - Tom Penn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It's surprising that Winchester would explore the same subject again, but the entire project seems slapdash, as if the Oxford University Press suddenly realized it hadn't done anything to commemorate this year's 75th anniversary of the completion of the OED. In fact, Winchester's new book seems to be little more than hurriedly pieced together outtakes from The Professor and the Madman. Nonetheless, it's still a remarkable story, rich in character and curiosity if not always in drama." - Matt Schudel, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Simon Winchester has previously written about the Oxford English Dictionary, in the bestselling The Surgeon of Crowthorne (US title: The Professor and the Madman), but there his focus was very much on two unusual men who contributed to the making of the OED. The Meaning of Everything is a more general history of this monumental dictionary -- though much space is again devoted to long-time editor James Augustus Henry Murray.
       The making of dictionaries is a complicated matter. Winchester points out that regarding French or Italian there are official bodies that lay down the law as to what language is, prescribing the use of language, while English is remarkably flexible; as Winchester puts it: "It changes constantly; its [sic] grows with an almost exponential joy." Thus a sensible way of presenting terms in an English dictionary is not by prescribing usage -- simply offering definitions -- but rather, as Samuel Johnson already did in his famous dictionary, by using quotes that illustrate actual usage (which, of course, often shifted over time). From the beginning, those behind the OED followed the same course, and it is this, followed through so consequently , -- as well as the sheer size of the OED, aspiring to be all-inclusive -- that sets it apart from all other dictionaries, English or foreign.
       Finding (and then collecting, sorting, and arranging) the illustrative examples was a remarkable achievement, and Winchester usefully describes the legions of volunteers who helped compile them. All did not go well from the first: the ambition was there, but not the resources, and while volunteers were enlisted (and many supplied vast amounts of information over the course of many years) the project moved unsteadily forward under various (often colourful) leaders, without much to show for it. It was almost two decades after the project was started, when James Murray was finally appointed editor (and the Oxford University Press became associated with the project), in 1879, that the OED finally began to really take shape.
       Winchester takes nearly a hundred pages to tell the story to that point, offering both background on dictionary-making over the years, as well as recounting the odd course of the project to make this "New English Dictionary" -- and many of the odder-still people associated with it. Though a fairly superficial survey, it is certainly entertaining and interesting. Striking, too, is the role of chance, as well as the strong (and often rich) guiding hands of a few who helped see the project continue when it seemed on the verge of collapse.
       Once Murray assumed his position it was (almost) all business. While there were a few more power struggles -- about presentation, prefaces, and credit -- Murray ultimately was the man in charge, and did a very fine job of it (as then did his successors).
       Winchester describes both the day-to-day workings behind the OED in the unappealing sounding Scriptorium -- a shed, first in London and then in Oxford, where Murray and his assistants (including, eventually, his many children -- 'the little Dics' as Winchester says they were called; Murray was, of course, 'the big Dic') toiled, the walls dominated by the famous pigeon-holes in which the slips of paper that formed the basis of the dictionary were kept -- as well as those farther afield (and a few of the special occasions).
       Winchester describes what all went into the making of a single entry, and gives some sense of how arduous the process could be. Among the interesting titbits of information: when Murray moved to Oxford the postmaster immediately had a red pillar mailbox erected "outside his front gate" -- testament to the enormous amounts of mail sent out from there, as large numbers of inquiries and requests went out daily.
       Fascinating, also, is how unrealistic all expectations of the amount of time that would be required, and the costs, and the size of the final product were. Winchester moves along fairly rapidly, but, in fact, it took ages, even from, when the first fascicle -- "A - Ant", covering 8,365 words -- was published (1884) to the last Ws (the XYZs were finished earlier) in 1928. (And even then, of course, as Winchester points out in his Epilogue, there wasn't really any time to rest, as a few decades worth of new words had accumulated, requiring supplement after supplement.)
       Winchester offers nice, small portraits of many associated with the project, from various editors to some of the many volunteers who provided so much of the necessary supporting material. The project, clearly, was greater than all the individuals associated with it, but Winchester offers a nice tribute to many of the overlooked contributors, finding a fill of fascinating stories there (even beyond the "surgeon of Crowthorne", William Chester Minor). He also looks at the evolution of the dictionary since the publication of the first edition, wondering about its future form.
       There's a large amount more that could be written about the OED, and readers might wish for more: more examples, more of the characters to be discussed more fully, more explanations about the minutiae of how these entries were constructed. But Winchester does offer a fine and entertaining overview of this remarkable reference work and the remarkable people responsible for it. He presents the material clearly, and offers amusing footnotes and observations that help make the read an even more entertaining one. Dictionary-making may be a dry subject, but by focussing for the most part on the personalities rather than the actual work, and by limiting his discussion of actual examples to fairly brief mentions (interspersed throughout the text) Winchester easily holds the reader's attention. And, along the way, he effortlessly does convey a great deal of information about most aspects of everything to do with the dictionary, discussing everything from etymology to university politics.
       An enjoyable read, and a good overview of a fascinating undertaking.

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The Meaning of Everything: Reviews: The Oxford English Dictionary:
  • Official OED site. Look for the word of the day.
Simon Winchester: Other books by Simon Winchester under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Simon Winchester works as a journalist and has written a multitude of books.

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© 2003-2011 the complete review

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