D is for Detective

D is for Detective, as in The Word Detective (2016) by John Simpson. I’d save this book for the “W” entry, but it’s due at the library and another word-hungry reader wants it.

The book’s subtitle is “Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary.” How many of us have been at a dictionary? The author, who worked on the OED for forty years, is referring to the physical headquarters at Oxford University, at one point described as “gloomy corridors…the office mirrored the sort of work we were doing.”

In 1976, John Simpson, a graduate student finishing up a master’s in Medieval Studies, became a cub lexicographer, ultimately assuming the role of chief editor and overseeing the 1989 update and online version. The OED was first suggested in 1857, editorial work began in 1879, and a final 10-volume edition was published in 1928. Simpson articulates his love for the job in the first chapter.

There have been many accounts of the dictionary’s history, but very few (if any) have managed to capture the excitement of the job––the fact that each day you are uncovering small but significant facts that have been almost entirely forgotten often for centuries and you have the opportunity to bring them back to the surface. The thrill of discovery, like the elation of a well-rounded definition, is almost like creating a poem.

His first task was to update the entry for “queen,” which began as the Anglo-Saxon word cwen. His process for providing new historical information and usage was to collect index cards in the basement of the building, gather additional information from books in the department’s reference library on the first floor, and write definitions in his office on the ground floor.

Hundreds of employees worked on the update. The process of hiring them is different than I imagined:

…Lexicographers veer as far away as they can from people who claim to love words. What is the point of loving words and at the same time expecting to analyze and classify them?” In the process of hiring people, Simpson asserts, “So how do we weed out these word lovers?” By giving them an exam, or, he says, “you just look around the room and see ho is left-handed and you appoint them. It’s a scandalous approach for a professional, but it’s backed up by real data.

 I love the OED, acquainting myself with the 20-volume print edition at the Whatcom Community College Library, the University of Southern Maine’s online version, and learning the book’s crazy history from Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. I missed electronic acesss when I completed my MFA degree, but my wife bought me a year’s subscription last Christmas and also showed me a review of The Word Detective in Christian Century, my current favorite OED book.

 Simpson’s favorite book about the OED is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, published in 2008. Simpson says Shea’s book “starts to bring the dictionary to life in a way that almost all other books about dictionaries fail to do.” I’ve placed a hold at the library for that title and Shea’s Bad English: A history of Linguistic Aggravation.

 If you pick up a copy of Simpson’s book, you might go to chapter 9 entitled “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,”

 Eleven pages of the 34 pages in “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,” is about the f-word, but I didn’t get a subscription to the OED or Simpson’s book so that I could focus on the OED’s category of “coarse slang.” Or did I? J Check out tomorrow’s blog, E for Elucidation

 

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