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

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  4,508 ratings  ·  511 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
Paperback, 288 pages
Published October 14th 2004 by Oxford University Press (first published January 1st 2003)
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It’s inevitable that a book about the making of the OED is going to have its limitations in terms of excitement, and there are times when this one does flag a little. It opens with an entertaining Prologue featuring the celebratory dinner held on the completion of the First Edition in 1928, and thereafter takes us on a trot through the history of dictionaries including of course, Samuel Johnson’s idiosyncratic version. In telling the story of the OED itself, the author concentrates on the role o ...more
Dec 17, 2007 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
Oct 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Simon Winchester has done it again. A clear concise study of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. I have already read one of his books, The Madman and the Professor, which describes one of the aspects of the project. This book followed that one and described the entire history instead of only one area.
I listened to the audio narrated by the author, but also borrowed the book from the library. It is full of pictures of all the people who were involved, as well as an index of subjects an
This seems to overlap very much with “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” (UK title) and “The Professor and the Madman” (US title), which I reviewed HERE, starting:

"This is the fascinating, incredible, but true story of the 70+ year project to compile “The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” - a biography of words that became “The Oxford English Dictionary” (OED). Not that you’d know that from the title. I enjoyed the story more than the novelistic telling of it..."
Nov 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester is the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. And what a pleasingly fascinating story it turns out to be.

I happened to find this book in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford (appropriately enough), having watched the film The Professor and the Madman a few weeks before. This film, based on another book also by Winchester, tells part of the story of the OED’s creation. I really liked the film and I was keen to find out more about the his
A few years ago I read the The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and through the first few chapters of this book I was like, "Is this by the same guy? I'm sure that was by Simon Winchester too. Did he write two books on the same subject?" (it was, he did).

This book is the whole story - the big picture of the creation of the OED, a project that was much bigger than the professor or the madman, and outlived them both. It is a gra
Sep 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
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
Oct 30, 2007 rated it it was ok
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.
I feel so enlightened and have a deeper appreciation for the dictionary, especially the Oxford English Dictionary.
May 17, 2009 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: any of the OED curious who missed Winchester's earlier book or Lynda Mugglestone's
Shelves: history, language
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
Nov 04, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Nov 06, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was fun and readable despite (partly because of?) a writing style appropriately stuffy for the topic at hand. I enjoyed the first couple of chapters the most, especially the parts on the history of dictionaries and lexicography in general. The daunting logistical issues posed by the project were also fascinating — so many problems that simply don't exist any more, like "how do I organise these millions of little handwritten slips" or "how do I keep copies (and keep track) of all this volumi ...more
May 02, 2012 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
Troy Blackford
Mar 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
A quite lovely little dip into OED history. This is one of Winchester's more enjoyable books, probably because it's shorter and less long-winded. But I did find gaps in some of his historical descriptions of people and events surrounding the OED, and thought he could have fleshed out and organized things just a bit better. Still, quite a fun read and I'd recommend it.

For books on the same topic, see The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dic
Dawn Michelle
This was excellent - who knew that the making of a dictionary could be so fraught with tension, backstabbing and intrigue? If you love words [and if you love reading, you must love words], this is an excellent read as to just how the biggest [and best] dictionary in the world was created and built. Amazing.
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
Feb 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
I've always wondered what some of the first 'crowd-sourced' (add that word to the OED please) efforts were in the world. Though not completely open like Wikipedia, the OED must be one of the first due to the efforts of thousands worldwide contributors. Yet, the words of the English language were funneled through the OED editors -- but, it couldn't have been produced without the world's help. This was an enjoyable ride into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary from beginning to end. Winch ...more
Jun 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Even as a child, because I was so, so cool, I wondered how dictionaries were made. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), then, crossed my mind only as something even more extreme, more impossible.

So, I enjoyed this tale of how the OED was made. It took 70 years.

As an editor who has toiled on the production, content, and publisher/acquisitions side of making books, this text stressed me out. A lot. The scope of the OED undertaking, and the level of scholarship it demanded, defies comprehension. A
I read this book for a class on the history and development of the English language. Fascinating story of the creation of the O.E.D. Have you ever wondered why we have dictionaries and who decides what goes in them? What about which dictionary to use--what does that say about you? This book sparked an interest in dictionaries in America (to be clear, the book is centered on England) and how the American English variant was legitimized by the Webster's dictionary. I ended up presenting my researc ...more
Sep 27, 2009 rated it it was ok
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.) ...more
Jul 07, 2013 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Graeme Roberts
Jan 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A package of sheer joy.
MrsJoseph *grouchy*

For English is a language that simply cannot be fixed, nor can it 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. Dictionaries that record and catalog the language cannot ever be prescriptive; they must always be entirely descriptive, telling of the language as it is, not as it should
Alice Lemon
I was significantly happier with this book than the other Simon Winchester book I've read, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Like that book, this one is full of interesting digressions. However, Winchester's tendency toward imperialist and pro-colonialism digressions is less noticeable and less upsetting when the topic is an academic project that took place in Victorian England than when it is a massive natural disaster that occurred at roughly the same time, but in a Dutch colony.

Although I
Kevin Leung
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
I had a tough time getting through this book. It took over 50 years to publish the complete 12 volumes in the first Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. It's a story of mismanagement, dedicated workers, poorly defined scope, and both good and bad luck. In short, it has all of the qualities of an ambitious project, be it a building or a book.

I hoped that there was a surprising gem or interesting twist in the story, but it is exactly what it purports to be, so judge this book by the cover.
Tanya Gold
Jan 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Another delightful story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary from the author of The Professor and the Madman—this one showing a much bigger picture.

It's got literary men using etymology to insult one another, people working out of sheds, and even a Tolkien cameo. It's fascinating, funny, and absolutely riveting.
Dec 12, 2020 rated it really liked it

This is the story of the conception and completion of the largest and most complex lexicographical project in the history of the world and of the major people who contributed to its publication.

Note: some of the people are weird. 

It’s absorbing, funny, and sometimes tedious. 
But the periodic tedium is discounted if you love words!
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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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