The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester in conversation with William Dalrymple

Simon Winchester is the right person to discuss the “Theory of Everything”, seeing that his books all approach the most mammoth of subjects in enterprise. Very significant amongst them has been a set of historical biographies that tells the story of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary.

One of the major contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was William Minor, a veteran from the American Civil War, who went mad and sought refuge in the United Kingdom. His story is unforgettable because what contributed to his being able to write such a substantial share of this encyclopedic lexicon is itself of staggering and great historic effect.

There are two books that Simon Winchester has written on the story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The more recent one is called The Meaning of Everything. This book, written still 20 years ago, was itself spawned by The Professor and The Madman, written in 1988.

While at a book-signing event for his subsequent book, The Map That Changed the World, confessed Winchester, a woman had come up to him and said that his best-selling biography of William Minor was in fact only a footnote in history and that she happened to be the commissioning editor of the OED. And this was how Simon Winchester came to be commissioned to write The Meaning of Everything.

Winchester is a candid, funny story-teller who approaches gargantuan, absolutely measureless subjects with a glib, relaxed and yet irreverent humour, showing us the often-cut moments of history – reputations of powerful editors who had voracious sexual appetites and will now forever be remembered for the less-than-kind rumors that surrounded their lives.

In every way, in the discussion, we are given dry facts and biographical details right next to the most unexpected trivia. And to everyone’s pleasure, the audience laughs at uncommon personalities doing uncommon things in private and then is regaled with the absolutely scholastic facts surrounding suggestive and difficult words from “bulbosities” to “take”.

However, as Winchester conveys, the history of the English language, from the standpoint of the OED, is not one about the conquest of the world as it is often thought to be.

Winchester says reviewers of the first proposal to create a complete dictionary of the English language were “happy that words come from other places”. English at that time was known to be a mongrel and an impure tongue, as Sir James Murray, primary editor of the OED, believed and yet thought “but we are going to illustrate what the meaning of the word is. Instead of explaining them, we are going to describe the words we use, proving context and examples.”

Murray would make his men work in the scriptorium, labouring over ten million slips that came in from all over the world. They sat with their feet in boxes that were filled with shredded paper to keep their feet warm.

William Minor would contribute these little slips, fantastically answering the call from the Philological Society at the mental asylum where he resided.

Murray went to visit Minor, his most assiduous correspondent. “Dr. Minor is indeed here. He is a lunatic, he is a murderer, and he is an American. A Civil War veteran. A schizophrenic. They became friends to the ends of their days…”

Winchester also recounted a horrifying scene from the asylum which goes like this:  “Quick, quick, I need a doctor…” “…I have just cut off my penis.” And then went into great detail about an “autopiotomy!” The audience rose with a rousing applause.

I find maybe it can be said that Winchester uses lexigraphy as a platform for a kind of stand-up comedy! He gives the audience, both Eastern and Western, an opportunity to laugh at the Crown’s effort to dominate the world linguistically.

In sum: a certain amount of intuitive decision-making takes place in the canonization of words in the OED.  “The OED is not produced to old white men,” Winchester concluded, “It is a monument if you like of old colonial England. Go to the OED …,” he said and described how new contributions can be made to the forthcoming edition.

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