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Simon Winchester
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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

3.98  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,276 Ratings  ·  358 Reviews
From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary. Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language--"so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully ...more
Kindle Edition
Published (first published January 1st 2003)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Stephanie
Jan 02, 2008 Stephanie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't recommend this enough. Fascinating, humor-full and very readable. You wouldn't think this would be funny, but it is. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe I'm a complete nerd but this is fascinating and fun and full of things you don't need to know! The people who contributed to the dictionary are truly interesting. I loved hearing about word origins and how they fit into the dictionary -- I wish Winchester would write more on this topic. I've fallen in love with his writing style which sou ...more
Barry
Sep 14, 2012 Barry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simon Winchester's wonderful book on the making of the most venerable authority on the English language is a delightful story. I have enjoyed both the hard copy and the CD read by the author.
Bruce
May 17, 2009 Bruce rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: any of the OED curious who missed Winchester's earlier book or Lynda Mugglestone's
2 1/2 stars, really. There’s a reason I’ve taken at least a week to get to this summary. It’s been hard to bring myself to find something to say about it beyond a resounding ‘meh.’ It’s sad that this book hasn’t much to recommend itself as a standalone history of the Oxford English Dictionary or as a complement to Winchester’s earlier The Professor and the Madman, parts of which this book reuses and the whole of which it takes a short seven pages to recap. But then, this is a short book. I got t ...more
Ian Tregillis
I read this in airports and airplanes, while exhausted beyond words, so my thoughts are not in order. Sue me.

Maybe 3.5 stars. I found this a little dry at first, but warmed up to it about halfway through. The Oxford English Dictionary truly is an amazing achievement, and the 70 year history of its first incarnation is astonishing. This book renewed my admiration for the OED, and made me wish all the more strongly that I owned a copy.

Many fascinating anecdotes to be found here. My favorite being
...more
Trevor
In The Surgeon of Crawthorne, or The Professor and the Madman as it is more sensationally titled in the States, Winchester makes the point that the book has two protagonists. However, any fair reading of that book would have to say that really there is only one protagonist and that is Dr Minor. The other protagonist that Winchester alludes to is James Murray – the man, more than anyone else, responsible for the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary.

This book has only one protagonist – and
...more
Troy Blackford
Mar 29, 2016 Troy Blackford rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is exactly the kind of thing I love. You have a grand story of real human endeavor and achievement--the inception and construction of the first Oxford English Dictionary--filtered through the lens of the very human characters involved in its construction and the outrageously difficult, outlandishly remarkable (one man contributed enormous amounts from inside an insane asylum), and everything in between. You get huge doses of history (of language, of dictionaries, of England itself) and larg ...more
Annette
Oct 30, 2007 Annette rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
After I told my husband that I finished this book, he asked how it was. I said "It was kind of boring." And he looked at me and said, "Annette, it was a history of the dictionary. What did you expect." So um. Yeah.

Moral of the story: You can stab women and still have a big vocabulary.
Pamela
I would have liked to have given this a better rating, but at times the book was just so dull. Winchester wrote another book about the making of the OED and perhaps all of his passion was put into that one. See: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Near the end, chapter 7 Winchester explores why so many people helped out with the making of the OED when their only reward was perhaps footnotes in the dictionary. Since he wrote this
...more
Richard
This is a most enjoyable book. The making of the first edition of the OED is surprisingly filled with event. The gigantic task took a lifetime and survived four editors before it was finally concluded. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge {a grandson of the poet} died just after he took up the position. He was followed by Fredrick Furnivall who took up the job with intense enthusiasm and then lost interest--neglecting the task to such an extent that the project was nearly cancelled. Fortunately h ...more
E
May 04, 2012 E rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm disturbed by the current trend of history authors focusing more on the biographies of the inviduals involved in a project rather than the ideas behind it. Have we as readers convinced them we are that voyeuristic? Is the People magazine approach to intellectual history the only thing that sells these days? Or do hardcore fans simply become so enamored of the figures who made it all possible that they cannot resist the urge to delve into the personal? This would be understandable if an author ...more
Kim
Sep 27, 2009 Kim rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
How embarrassing. I recommended this for our book club based on its reviews, and the fact that it's about the dictionary. We're all word lovers, of course we're going to love this book! Right? No one liked it. The words most often used were "boring" and "dry." Very disappointing! (I yelled this like Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, when he finds no diamonds in the safe. Then I threw the book across the room.)
Julie
Jul 18, 2013 Julie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Liv
Shelves: non-fic
Not for everyone, but word nerds will enjoy. It reads more like a 700 page book so at points I just had to skim-too many lists. It does make me more curious about "The Professor and the Madman" which sounds like it may be a much more interesting read. Filled with truly gem-like details-my favorite-that Julian Barnes was one of the "unsung" wordsmiths who worked on the editing of the revised edition.
Bob Perry
Jan 11, 2013 Bob Perry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thoroughly loved this book for the most part. It was written with Simon's unique ability to make mundane information interesting and fresh. I do admit that I enjoyed the other book by him on this subject, "The Professor & the Madman". I'm glad to have read both though since they cover multiple topics and bring the story together.

When I read a book like this it makes me wish that I had a love of words and the mind to learn multiple languages easily as so many people involved in the OED were.
...more
Darla
Jun 23, 2014 Darla rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Amazing to think of putting together the OED in the days before computers. SW obviously loved his topic and loved big words; I felt I needed the dictionary on hand to look up several words per page. It was accessible but still very academic and I could only read a few pages at a time.
Michael
I did really enjoy the subject matter of this book, but the writing was too dry, it felt like I was reading Wikipedia. If you are interested in the subject I still recommend The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and maybe The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Lindi
A favorite author on my favorite subject
Bruce Cline
Apr 23, 2016 Bruce Cline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book I might not have purchased had I not been familiar with the author or previously read his later book about a tiny element of this monumental story. (That other book, The Professor and the Madman is---about a brilliant but murderous madman who was a significant contributor to the OED---like this volume, quite entertaining and well worth reading.) This imminently readable volume is the extraordinary story of the 71 year (!) effort to compile the most exhaustively researched and comp ...more
Don
Mar 29, 2016 Don rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
OED - The Oxford English Dictionary. The phrase conjures in me a picture of a massive book on a wooden library stand opened randomly to somewhere in the middle, with seemingly infinite lines of tiny text - the ultimate source of information about the meanings and derivations of words in English. In my lifetime, I've been able to take the existence of dictionaries for granted. Need a definition? Reach over to the shelf, answers available at my fingertips (and, of course, now even more literally t ...more
Danae Dracht
The tone and format of the book is similar to an academic textbook, complete with footnotes providing helpful information on the various sources within the work. Overall, the organization of the text is in a traditional, maneuverable order. The index is arranged appropriately for those looking for information on specific terms. The bibliography is also thorough and provides three pages worth of insight on further reading. Quotes and examples of dictionary definitions are helpful in providing wel ...more
Jennifer Heise
Apr 12, 2015 Jennifer Heise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, audiobooks
What a great story. What was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, conceived by a small group of philologists and shaped by a huge early example of crowd-sourcing, and the organizational and personal struggles it took to bring it to completion, as well as the vivid personalities involved in making it so. (Some of them may actually have been less vivid in the hands of a lesser biographer, but learning about the peculiarities of Frederick Furnivall, who knew previously through only his traces a ...more
James F
Feb 04, 2015 James F rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lexicography
Winchester's earlier book about the making of the OED, The Madman and the Professor, was this month's reading for the Utah State Library Book Discussion. When I posted my review of that on Shelfari, I remarked that I wished he had focused less on the one story of Dr. Minor and more on the dictionary itself; a person in one of my discussion groups pointed out that he had written this book, and I requested the library get it.

This is a fascinating book about a subject that wouldn't seem on the fac
...more
Lolita Lark
Jun 12, 2014 Lolita Lark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Winchester has given us a smasher here. Who would ever, in their right mind, think that the history of the 54 years it took them to create the first Oxford English Dictionary would be such a treat? We're talking of a delightful précis of a project of several lifetimes, where several of the editors up and died before their work was done.
The early years were consumed with agony and backbiting. The Philological Society of London thought up the project, and the first editor, Herbert Coleridge turned
...more
Erwin
Apr 21, 2014 Erwin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting story.

What was it like to live in a world without dictionaries? Serious, think about that. I've always taken the dictionary for granted as much as the kinfe and the wheel, but ithe dictionary is a relatively recent invention. Without a dictionary, how do we unify language? How do we differentiate between simple ignorance and a deeper misunderstanding? How do we define "proper pronunciation"?

The Oxford English Dictionary was a 60+ year project that had to tackle all of there prob
...more
Rebecca
Mar 27, 2014 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
The history of the creation of the OED, from the vague fumblings in the mid 1800s of the Philological Society to the continuation of the OED online today. Winchester covers all the men who edited the dictionary, with biographical information as well as information on how they worked on the dictionary. Chief was James Murray, who was chief editor for something like 30 years. The author also talks about the contributors, those who worked with the editors, the publishers, and of course the words. T ...more
Judy
Aug 20, 2014 Judy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well-written sentences, amusing anecdotes, lots of facts and numbers populate Winchester's history of the development and creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. We meet a range of fascinating characters worldwide, though mostly in the British Isles, who were involved in the project. And what characters they are! Different backgrounds, conflicting interests, the devoted as well as the irreverent, people who worked for years on the project from their offices to their prison cells, schoolmaster ...more
Xanthi
Feb 14, 2015 Xanthi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I listened to this on audiobook, read by the author.
I have to admit that the Oxford English Dictionary is something I have always taken for granted. I had a had me down, battered copy of it that I use to use during my school years. Not once then, or even up until recently, had I ever wondered how or who put it together, nor stopped to truly appreciate the effort it must have taken.
Until now that is. I came across this book simply due to the fact that I like this author's writings. He can take wh
...more
Donna Sandidge
Dec 07, 2015 Donna Sandidge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have always loved dictionaries! I could not keep track of the names/people in this book but continued reading without really caring. It is so beautifully written; it is clear the author loves the English language. If you have any interest in the OED or how the first dictionary was compiled, I recommend this book!
Alan Kaplan
May 16, 2016 Alan Kaplan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another excellent book about the Oxford English Dictionary. When you were a child and would look something up in a reference book, you never imagined how difficult it would be to write a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Think about trying to find every word, and I mean every word. Trying to define it, find its origins and all of its varied meanings. This is an amazing undertaking. Building the dictionary took over 70 years. Each letter took years and years to compile. Remember, this was all done o ...more
Steven Yenzer
Having read and only somewhat remembered The Professor and the Madman -- which Winchester apparently wrote earlier and tells a zoomed-in account of OED Editor James Murray and his clinically insane contributor, Dr. W.C. Minor -- I found The Meaning of everything to be an interesting if not always exciting account of the creation of the OED.

It was wonderful to think about the fluidity of English in Victorian England and just how much mental labor was required to create the first truly complete di
...more
Nancy
May 07, 2015 Nancy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I was surprised that the meaning of everything would take a mere 250 pages. Having read "The Professor and the Madman", I had assumed that this book would be a bit more "in-depth". It was... but overall it seemed more of a synopsis of high (or low) points, very few direct quotes and - unhappily - once again the authors mentions an early wedding photo of James Murray and fails to include it in the book. Why keep mentioning a photo and not share it? Perplexing.

A rather light read overall, probably
...more
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Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publ ...more
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“No critic and advocate of immutability has ever once managed properly or even marginally to outwit the English language's capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility. For English is a language that simply cannot be fixed, not can its use ever be absolutely laid down. It changes constantly; it grows with an almost exponential joy. It evolves eternally; its words alter their senses and their meanings subtly, slowly, or speedily according to fashion and need.” 3 likes
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