In his autobiographical testimony about how he came to believe in Christianity titled Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis writes that when he first set off for the university, his father gave him the wise advice to never trust two groups of people: papists and philologists. He would quickly befriend a man who was both, JRR Tolkien. That man is far more recognized for his amazing piece of literature in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but others adore him more so for his work in philology. I am increasingly becoming more interested in the latter of the two aspects of his life’s work. Middle Earth is a fantastic place no doubt, but the English language, the world’s most important language which seems to have been given to us by accident, is far more fantastical in my eyes. All this to lead into a delightful nonfiction work I recently read which told the story of the creations of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything.

A book about a dictionary might sound as exciting as watching snow melt or detasseling corn; however, I believe this book is so well-written that anybody with any general interest in languages or history would really enjoy it. Furthermore, the book is nearly a phone book of people who were intimately involved in the creation of man’s greatest literary achievement, the OED. But Winchester first takes the reader through the thrilling adventure of the beginnings of our language. Though certainly a thorough introduction to the history of the English language, Winchester’s account is not over-extensive, shackled by irrelevant details. Instead, he gives a very readable account of a language that appears to have been given to a people in almost as fantastic a way as the story of Babel.

A language now known as Old English sprung up in the land of the Britons around the 4th and 5th centuries — the language of Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn, Alfred the Great and Bede’s history of England. Anyone who reads this language probably thinks they’re reading something similar to German, as it is a Germanic language. But a funny thing happened in the 11th century, and Old English gave way to Middle English, the English of Chaucer. The professor who recommended this book to my class, a class titled “The History of the English Language” (or, for those many English majors, simply HEL), believes that our language reached its epoch between the 11th and 15th centuries, when we spoke Middle English. Indeed, that language is beautiful, but a shift occurred sometime around the late 15th century into what we know call Modern English. Man, quite naturally decided that this far-reaching and at the time unruly language must be tied down by laws and regulations. Thus began the creation of dictionaries.

The dictionary that most linguists probably cite as the first dictionary, though it is by no means the first, is Samuel Johnson’s two-volume A Dictionary of the English Language, at the time called simply “The Dictionary.” This peculiar document is more of a classic work of art now than any sort of useful dictionary. Johnson could not resist certain humorous definitions such as that for “oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people”; or hidden political beliefs such as “Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjuged not by common judges of property, but wretches hired by those who to whom excise is paid”; or self-inflicting insults like “Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words”; or the general rule when writing dictionaries to have no definition more complex than the word it is defining such as “Network: Any thing reticulated, or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”

Nevertheless, Johnson’s dictionary stands as a guiding principle for the rest of our language’s history to point back to, and those who continued the tough task of a lexicographer merely stood on that man’s shoulders. The brave men who where so well-chronicled in Winchester’s account decided to imitate Johnson’s design for his dictionary, albeit without the quirky definitions. The OED, for those maybe not familiar, would be a monument to the English language that would not, and it is safe to say will not, ever be surpassed: for every word that has even been written down in the English language would find its way in the OED with every definition that has ever been used whether, archaic or modern, including the word’s own fascinating history.

The magnanimity of the dictionary itself is almost dwarfed by the scrupulous efforts of the men and women who sacrificed large portions of their lives in its creation. The document began in 1858 with its first editor, Herbert Coleridge, the grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  and was never intended to take the 70 arduous years it took to complete. Editor came and went and the dictionary continued and flourished best under the guidance of a man named James Murray. This is just one of the many characters we learn about in this century, but he alone was a giant of lexical knowledge who stated that he was “intimate… with the Roman tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects” — not to mention his familiarity with the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes as well as Dutch, German, French, Flemish, Danish, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, Sanscrit, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic, and Phenecian to name a few. He may not have had a mastery level of all those languages — half of which I had never heard of — but the lexical knowledge men like him knew at the time is astounding.

But perhaps Murray, in all his linguistic achievements and endeavors, had never had a harder task than that of editor for the OED. The dictionary was constructed by the efforts of hundreds upon hundreds of men and women who were voluntary readers. These readers would search for the necessary words that Murray and his comrades were then working on (they went in alphabetical order), write down these words, where they found them, the contextual definition etc. and send them to those working on the dictionary. Minute care was then given to distinguish which slips that were sent in were relevant: Were the words sent in real words? Was that definition already documented? At what time did that word begin taking on that meaning? Can we read/trust this handwriting? And so on, keeping in mind, the vast inaccessibility to corroborate these questions with multiple dictionaries (Webster’s being the most popular at the time) or user-friend computer search-engines.

This inevitably led to the constant battle the editors of the dictionary faced: meeting deadlines while retaining the timely care and detail needed for such a grand achievement. But Murray remained steadfast during his days as the chief of the project, refusing to give in to any advice that called for him to speed up the process to generate more funds. Almost as if by divine decree, the slow moving vessel trudged on through the thick mire of the common work of a lexicographer, a harmless drudge.

The work could not go on without the many hundreds of readers who devoted their time to sending in slips of paper, a process at first unorganized but later streamlined by the creation of more pigeonholes to better separate those slips. Winchester gives an entire chapter devoted to these readers, two of which are notable: one Fitzedward Hall, a self-taught philologist, and William Chester Minor, a criminally insane murderer. The stories of men like Hall and Minor are interesting enough, so interesting that Winchester wrote another book entirely devoted to Murray and Minor titled The Professor and the Madman. The two never met, but during Minor’s time at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane (put there for murder) he devoted an intense amount of effort at reading and sending in very useful definitions for Murray. He had plenty of time to do so in any case.

Hall’s story is a bit more adventurous, almost similar to Herman Melville’s stories of voyage and adventure. Instead of attending Harvard, Hall was sent from Boston to Calcutta but was washed ashore by a tempest in the Bay of Bengal. Instead of doing the natural thing such as reaching Calcutta or returning to Boston, Hall decided to travel up the Hooghly River and learn Hindustani, Bengali, Sanskrit and Persian, making an income by translating books written in languages he knew English, French, Italian and modern Greek into those new languages he learned (as if this was so easily done). A series of other interesting and no less adventurous events ended in his seeking refuge as a hermit in East Anglia, sending in those many slips to Murray and his team.

This post would, naturally, be incomplete if I did not return to Tolkien and his efforts. Though a relatively young philologist at the time, Tolkien arrived at the dictionary during the time many were working on words beginning with (x, y, and were published before the last part of w). Tolkien toiled over various words: warm, wasp, water, wick, wallop, waggle, winter, walnut, wampum, and the ever-so-difficult walrus. His work was so honored that eventually his very own creation, hobbit, made its way into the grandest of all dictionaries.

The OED’s significance cannot be measured, and while numbers mean next to nothing to me, Winchester includes the work of a Mr. R. M. Leonard who calculated that in 1928, the date of its first edition publication, the dictionary had no fewer than 414,825 headwords, 1,827,306 illustrative quotations and 2,227,779,589 letters and numbers when leaving out spaces, colons and commas. The total amount of type would stretch 178 miles. But 1928 would not be the end to such a work regarding such an unwieldy topic as the English Language, and the work certainly goes on today. Maybe one of the more frustrating issues of this type of work, that of a lexicographer, is the “never-ending” aspect of words ceaselessly being added into the work. Even while pushing out new sections of the largest dictionary known to man, words were inserting their way into our language.

Words cannot describe the stories mentioned in Winchester’s work, and for our causes today, taking a step back in perspective is so very important. Our generation stands upon the shoulders of men like Samuel Johnson, Herbert Coleridge and his poetic grandfather, Murray and his madman, and Tolkien and his own fancies. Yet with the breadth, the depth and the width of knowledge so readily available at our fingertips, I find myself so content with enough to get by intellectually. But a man in the 19th century would endeavor with those little resources to learn multiple languages and apply that learning to something as tedious as the OED. Greatness will never be achieved in our generation without the fortitude and discipline needed for such tasks. Too much is handed out, given on a whim these days. Better for us to role up the sleeves of our minds, to turn off the screens of realism to greater halls of imagination and seek the far greater pleasures of intellectual ascent. Perhaps the greatest tragedy that seeped into the late 20th century was the surrendering of the intellect for fleeting pleasures of the flesh. Let us return to that age where men would toil for hours upon hours to better their brains against that current of pleasurable mists and wilting grass that appears for a time and is thrown into the oven. For it is the will alone which comes from Above that will push us intellectually. As Spurgeon once said “Brethren, do something; do something, do something!… Too often we discuss, and discuss, and discuss, while Satan only laughs in his sleeve… Get to work!”


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