Several years ago, a professor recommended The Professor and the Madman to me, which detailed one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s most prolific contributers—a schizophrenic surgeon writing from a psychiatric hospital. When I recently decided to look the book up, I found that while the library didn’t have that particular book, it did have an earlier book by the same author which proposed to detail the OED’s construction more generally. A linguist and bibliophile, I couldn’t pass it up.
According to Winchester, the completed first edition of the OED was “unbelievably big—fat, heavy, shelf-bendingly huge.” It comprised a total of 227,779,589 alphanumeric characters in 178 miles of type spread over 15,490 pages; it covered 414,825 words, backed up by “no fewer than 1,827,306 illustrative quotations” (pp. xix-xx). All this was done over a span of 70 years from the time such a dictionary was originally proposed by a popular philological society of the day.
Writing a book about the English language is difficult enough1, but Winchester is essentially writing a book about a book about the English language, which is no mean feat since it needs to assume a level of initial competency. For this reason, after a somewhat florid prologue, he spends a chapter summarizing the origins of the English language, its predecessor and constituent cultures, and its predominant tendencies. Next, he covers the history of dictionaries themselves, from the very earliest publications of difficult words, to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, as well as the prominent American lexicographer, Noah Webster2.
Finally, Winchester comes to the fateful day when a complete dictionary of all the English words ever used and all their various meanings is proposed at a philological society meeting. So begins 70-year journey to the initial publication of the complete OED. Along the way were various senior editors, but the longest-running editor was John Murray, a bearded Scotsman who almost ended up working for Webster’s dictionary instead. Winchester is clearly enamored of Murray, and spends the majority of his time on him, both as a chronicle of his undeniably great work on the dictionary, as well as defending Murray’s character against his various foes at the time—including penny-pinching administrators at Oxford.
The sausage-making of this kind of research and publication is both morbidly fascinating and intellectually stunning; I won’t bore you with further summary, since you should really read the book if you want the whole story. Once I opened the book, I didn’t put it down; I finished it in a single afternoon. That, if nothing else, speaks highly of the book’s quality of writing and the calibre of its content.