The Word Detective
Searching for the Meaning of it
All at the Oxford English Dictionary

John Simpson
(Basic Books)
Several years ago, we reviewed an earlier history of the OED, called The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester. We found it engaging, funny, "a smasher." We concluded,

    Who would ever believe that the writing of a dictionary could be such a page-turner? It's not only the characters; it's not only the brief (but excellent) history of the English language; it's not only the history of previous dictionaries, including Samuel Johnson's (When one lady complained that there were no obscenities in his dictionary, he replied, "Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.")

"It's the author's ability to pluck so many droll facts about it and the people involved that kept us going. As the OED bogs down in its own self-imposed task, the reader finds himself urging these eccentric characters to desist, to get done with wandering through those interminable E's, and M's, and S's --- just be done. Finish that project . . . that, alas, will never be done."

All these sentiments, and much of the love for the project, pop up in The Word Detective. John Simpson came to the OED in 1976 with little if any training in lexicography . . . but he survived his first meeting with the then editor, Bob Burchfield.

In interview, Simpson revealed that he had been working on a suitably obscure topic. viz, medieval Icelandic tales (which he found that he could read in the original). His thesis lay in its relation to the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The key to their rapport lay in the fact that both knew a scholar, one who later turned from "his academic guise as a medievalist" into "a Hobbit weaver." His name: J. R. R. Tolkien.

After that joining, Simpson was a shoo-in.

And during the course of this book, we will watch as he slowly makes his way through the twisting OED line of succession to ultimately become the Chief Editor.

In his own promptory, Samuel Johnson defined a lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries - - - a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words." Despite this, Simpson turned out to be not only patient drudge, but a good scholar, and later, in this work, a (sometimes) witty writer.

Much of his book demonstrates Simpson's heroic efforts to bring the OED (and its gang of duffers with their black ink-pens, their 3x5 cards, and their chalky suits) into the present with a bevy of fancy new computers.

Such a formidable package (words!) must have enough electronic storage space, an electronic balloon - - - parked inside a great hanger, a floating aeroship, a blooming word-hanger, far from the past century's 3 by 5s - - - words that can be keyed, and stored in bits and bytes; most of all, one that could be infinitely changeable. The language is always always changing.

The second edition of the OED, , the one that Simpson had just helped through parturition, was to be printed solely on paper, and was not yet to be rendered into the aetheric form. It also needed the simple assurance that its essence would never run out of space as it was transformed into definitions, lingual resources, and the thousands of necessary appropriate definitions.

When Simpson and his workers looked through the old OED:

    we busily divided the number of words defined in the existing dictionary (414,800) by the number of years until 2000 (7), and came to the conclusion that (a) it couldn't be done, and (b) we'd better see if we could do it.

In the process, they made several radical decisions. One was that they would begin not with A, B, C, &ct. . . . but rather with the letter M. As he points out, "The order of the letters in the English alphabet isn't significant, so it doesn't matter in what order you edit them." Got that? In our new-founded vaporous electronic world, you can build your word-farms starting with the great middle . . . M.

    M was a friendly letter. That is one of its characteristic properties. Mmmmmm. Umm. Yum yum. When the letter M was originally edited, in the early twentieth century, the dictionary was on a stable course and the results made for impressive reading.

"It was not going to be excessively difficult - - - we thought fondly - - - for us to test our mettle on it before heading back to the choppier waters of A, B, and C. Also it contains a nice mix of words from the Germanic and Romance streams, which form the bedrock of English today. Generally it gave us a good variety of editorial issues without presenting us with anything problematic."

Later, when it became known to the world that they would be beginning in the middle, people asked why, and he would respond, "so that we could get to the end more quickly."

The truth was that the beginnings produced by the original editors back in 1880 "was somewhat unkempt editorially. They had been struggling to find a style when they started out in A, , and often enough to fill their pages."

For the current editors, "it was going to be particularly hard to update that material."

§   §   §

When Edward Gibbon brought The Duke of Gloucester the second volume of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "the Duke received him with much good nature and affability, saying to him, as he laid the quarto on the table, 'Another d----d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?'" It is, for some, certainly thinking of the folk in the trenches at the OED, that this new one would be even more of a scribble. Especially with the peculiarities of our beloved language.

English is a magpie, and will be, forever and a day, stealing words hither and yon. Words words words . . . "scribble scribble scribble." It was Simpson's job to sort, classify, and find quotes in this thieving-magpie language; and in its mystery, as an officer of the law - - - the bizarre laws of English - - - his main task is to find out who robbed what from whom, and how and when. Where did this pearl of language come from?

For instance, take the word "fuck?"

It had been banned from all previous editions, finally tucked in there at whence it came to rest, flying in as a kestrel, the common windfucker. Mostly, Simpson thinks, they believed that if it was hidden in right near the end, no one would notice. "In Britain," he points out, if included before 1960, "they and their publisher would have been arrested for gross indecency."

§   §   §

The most fun comes from Simpson's obvious passion for words, and every few pages, he will take a rest, pulling a jewel from what he has just written and lead us through its origins, its history, and any peccadillos that may lay in its forgotten history. Thus, we are allowed to spend a few moments with "dribs and drabs," "hue and cry," "skanking," "launch," "project," "grok," and even the humble "same:"

    Little words like same cause enormous problems for lexicographers. This is, because, however it is used, same always means the same thing.

Simpson will take a page or so to examine an obscure word like "burpee," which, as the medical Burpee test, was devised by one Dr. Royal H. Burpee "to measure a person's agility and muscular coordination." We are somewhat disappointed in Simpson's reluctance to comment on the sound it, its eructative force. I had as a friend back in the 40's, one Leland Burpee - - - perhaps a distant relative of the good doctor. All of Leland's friends had a riotous time as we attempted to belch whenever and however we called him.

There are plenty of very funny sounding words in English; we would suspect that if Simpson would let his hair down, he could have given us some other beauties and uglies. I offer "ointment" as one of the ugliest, and in opposition, Groucho Marx's favorite, the lovely "cellar door." As I spend considerable time living as I do here in LatinAamerica trying to make my way through Spanish, I suspect that one of the fowlest words in that language would be "hígado" . . . pronounced HEE-gah-dough. (It means and presumably smells like "liver.")

We miss more diversions here. We are disappointed, for instance, that the writer didn't offer up a brief study of the common dieresis, which has, alas, rapidly faded - - - finally completely forced out at The New Yorker, much to the regret of those of us who love the typography that could turn a simple "oo" into the dual-spotted oh in coördination - - - which the OED itself defines as "A mark placed over a vowel to indicate that it is sounded in a separate syllable, as in naïve, Brontë." Simpson had crammed enough already into The Word Detective, and we are thankful for that, and we must insist that we are hardly one to question the grammar of a formidable former editor of the OED.

At the same time, we must complain about his questionable uses of the reflexive pronoun. Three times in The Word Detective, he offers up the word "myself" at the end of a prepositional phrase, instead of the sweet, simple "me."

"There arose at much the same time [he writes] the dim prospect of an olive branch offered for the eventual revival of the full OED, if the cards fell in the right way."

    This, it goes without saying, became a matter of interest to Ed and myself.

Ignore the creaky old "it goes without saying" (if this be true, don't say it - - - as our eighth grade English teacher, the great Ms. Midge would have it).

But we are here addressing ourselves to the reflexive pronoun "myself." According to the Oxford Dictionary children's "Language matters" online, one of the "Criticized uses" of a reflexive pronoun suggests,

    Myself is also used in ways which many people object to or dislike, as follows:

    as the subject of a verb:

    It wasn't that Peter and myself were being singled out.

    My friends and myself do not find it a great problem.

    or as the object of a verb:

    They hauled Barry and myself in for questioning.

    But that would involve Kate and myself working together!

I seem to recall a similar thumbs down of this use of the reflexive pronoun in my beloved OEP edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by the crabby Henry Watson Fowler. Search as I might, I couldn't find his interdictions: not under "reflexive" or "pronouns" (or "reflexive pronouns.") Nor did it bury itself under "-self" nor "improper & noxious uses of the vulgar myself."

I am sure it is there somewhere, tucked away, along with the usual Fowlerian excorations, perhaps adjacent to his scathing comments on the word Proposition:

    The modern use as a Vogue-word, in senses of which the OED, in a section published so recently as 1909, shows no trace, is an Americanism. It runs riot in 20th-c. newspapers, but is so slightly recognized in British dictionaries, that probably few people realize its triumphant progress. Those who will look through the instances collected below may perhaps be surprised to see the injury that is being done by this single word to the language, & resolve to eschew it. Like MENTALITY, it is resorted to partly because it combines the charms of novelty and length, & partly because it ministers to laziness; there is less trouble in using it than in choosing among the dozen of so of words, one or other of them more suitable, for any of which it will pass.

--- L. W. Milam
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