The Word Detective

The Word Detective

Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary : A Memoir

Book - 2016
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What do you call the part of a dog's back it can't scratch? Can you drink a glass of balderdash? And if, serendipitously, you find yourself in Serendip, then where exactly are you? The answers to all of these questions can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. And there is no better guide to the dictionary's many wonderments, its quirks, and its quiddities than the former chief editor of the OED, John Simpson. John spent almost four decades of his life immersed in the intricacies of our language, and guides us through its history with charmingly laconic wit. In The Word Detective, an intensely personal memoir and a joyful celebration of English, he weaves a story of how words come into being (and sometimes disappear), how cultures shape the language we use, and how we cope when words fail us. Throughout, he enlivens his narrative with lively excavations and investigations of individual words-from deadline to online and back to 101 (yes, it's a word)-all the while reminding us that the seemingly mundane words (can you name the four different meanings of ma?) are often the most interesting ones. A brilliant expedition through the world of words, The Word Detective will delight, inspire, and educate any lover of language.
Publisher: New York : Basic Books, 2016
ISBN: 9780465060696
Characteristics: xvi, 364 p. ; 25 cm


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JessicaGma May 23, 2018

Just go down and read FindingJane's comment as it's much better than my own comments. It's a nice accompaniment to the Lexicographer's Dilemma about Merriam Webster.

FindingJane Nov 20, 2016

Comprehensive, absorbing, literate and literary, this book is a tribute to one of the world’s greatest lexicographical guide to the English language (and other languages along the way). It’s also the personal story of the man who got involved in it.

Needless to say, compiling, updating and modernizing a work as massive as the Oxford English Dictionary takes a lot of work, sweat and participatory effort. Mr. Simpson doesn’t stint on writing down the various steps needed to see that a word is retrieved, indexed, catalogued and explored. But the book isn’t a dusty, boring tome by any means. Mr. Simpson’s work on the OED was an intensely personal journey for him, as he struggled to get extra employees, deal with committees and manage his own home life (and keep it from influencing him too much at work).

He spent many of the best years of his life at the OED and his decision to leave it when he grew older was both easy and difficult. He knew he’d done his best and was ready to pass on the mantle to others. His memoir gets you to respect his decision because it keeps the focus mainly on the massive dictionary that consumed his working hours.

He mentions other books, other works, details how the OED moved from print to being online and yet points out how the printed word doesn’t lose its value. The love of the English language and the respect for other languages that contributed to its overall wealth of speech are also here. If you want to know more about the OED, he also gives a personal list of books he considers worthwhile reading.

This is a terrific memoir, that of a working man with an intelligent mind and probing intellect. Those who want to know more about the OED can do no worse than to dive into this tribute to one man’s decades spent bringing it into the 21st century.


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