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

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Can you drink a glass of balderdash? What do you call the part of a dog's back it can't scratch? And if, serendipitously, you find yourself in Serendip, then where exactly are you?

The answers to all of these questions -- and a great many more -- can be found in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary , the definitive record of the English language. And there is no better guide to the dictionary's many wonderments than the former chief editor of the OED , John Simpson. Simpson 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 culture shapes the language we use, and how technology has transformed not only the way we speak and write but also how words are made.

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. But Simpson also reminds us of the limitations of language: spending his days in the OED 's house of words, his family at home is forced to confront the challenges of wordlessness.

A brilliant and deeply humane expedition through the world of words, The Word Detective will delight and inspire any lover of language.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2016

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About the author

John Simpson

2 books18 followers
English lexicographer and former Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 101 reviews
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
November 21, 2016
I suppose this is as good a review as any to come clean about my addiction to lexicography.

Like a lot of people, I first experimented at university. It began with an obsession over obscure words – I would roll a fat copy of Ulysses, digging out anastomosis, boustrephodon or farraginous, or cook up some Anthony Burgess in search of furfur, hallux, ictal or margaric. Before I knew it, I was mainlining Will Self, Guy Davenport and Thomas Pynchon, the highs of sequipedalianism (as I would doubtless then have called it) pulling me through even the most turgid of plots.

But the adolescent appeal of showy, ten-dollar terms like dolichophallic or eutripsia soon wanes. The real thrill, I soon worked out, is in unpicking the definitions of seemingly-familiar words. Reading Spenser was a watershed. Consider a line like Shortly unto the wastefull woods she came, / Whereas she found the Goddesse with her crew. At first glance there’s nothing obvious that you need to look up. But wait – wasteful here clearly doesn’t mean what is usually means, which is to do with wasting resources. Sure enough, checking a good dictionary will show that an earlier meaning is ‘uninhabited, desolate’: that’s obviously what Spenser had in mind.

Another example from The Faerie Queene: He lookt askew with his mistrustfull eyes, / And nicely trode, as thornes lay in his way. Most people would read this without difficulty, but how many would grasp that nicely means ‘carefully, fastidiously’? Or that when he talks about someone being cherished, he means that they’re being cheered up? Or that when someone mainly does something, it means they are doing it forcefully or vigorously? That preventing something means outdoing it?

This was a whole new obsession. It changed the way I read books completely. Once you’re tuned in to an older text, you start to realise that in almost every sentence there’s a common word that ‘feels’ somehow wrong, and usually this is because its meaning has shifted over time, either subtly or quite dramatically. It was for predominantly linguistic reasons that I first read Robert Burton, Folio's translation of Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Malory, Chaucer, or Beowulf. Come for the archaic verb inflections, stay for the artistry.

To describe all this, I got involved with the website Wiktionary, the dictionary counterpart to Wikipedia. It is terrifying to think of how many hours I have poured into that bloody site. (My wife once asked pointedly if I had worked on the definition of divorce.) I see that since I joined in 2005, I’ve edited more than 40,000 entries there and created well over 12,000 new ones. And the really involving, rewarding work was never the ‘weird’ words but the common ones – like of .

But that's just a hobby. John Simpson has made a living out of this kind of investigation into how words are used, how their meaning changes, and how quickly a dictionary needs to work to keep up. It was under his stewardship that the Oxford English Dictionary launched its incredible, fully-revised third edition, which began appearing in 2000 and is currently perhaps one-third of the way through, with more updates appearing online every quarter. It is truly vast, and will probably never appear in print, for ecological reasons if nothing else.

The OED is certainly now the best dictionary of any language in the world. In fact browsing the new entries convinces you of what a gigantic feat of scholarship it is – and that's because, as Simpson illustrates in this memoir, lexicography is above all a matter of deep and thorough archival research. The OED bases all of its definitions on citation evidence – it gathers together a load of examples of a word in use, and then tries to summarise what exactly it means in context. The citations are there in the entry so you can see for yourself. (This is in contrast to some other dictionaries, which first decide what a word means or should mean, and then conclude that people who use it differently are using it ‘wrong’.) So digging out and collating these historical examples is an enormous undertaking (and one of the many things that has been revolutionised by the internet).

This is particularly important with new words, whose eligibility for inclusion is a common point of contention for lexicographers (and their critics). The OED has an informal rule that a word should be attested over ten years before it can go in, to weed out flash-in-the-pan coinages. But with the online updates, this still allows for a dictionary that's extremely up-to-date – this year alone, amid the hundreds of older and more technical inclusions, the OED has added entries for things like glamping, bro-hug, sideboob and YOLO.

This is turning into an unwanted essay on why the OED is the greatest ‘book’ the world has ever produced (which it is – I've looked at it nearly every day of my life for the last twenty years). Suffice to say that Simpson takes you amiably enough through the story of how this beast of English scholarship has struggled, slowly but successfully, to keep up with and take advantage of the technological revolution to stay at the front of its field.

There is not much else to it – he attempts to maintain a kind of background story of his family life, but without much conviction. If you're not really into dictionaries, there's probably not a lot for you here. Though it is nice to learn that he once got performance poet Benjamin Zaphaniah into the office to gyrate in front of him and his team, so they could write an accurate description of skanking:

Stuff like that can still give me a pretty good high.
Profile Image for thefourthvine.
521 reviews199 followers
November 20, 2018
I thought maybe every book by a lexicographer would give me the same hit of joy as Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, so I picked up this book. It handily proved that theory wrong.

My biggest problem with this book was the author, John Simpson, or, as he came to be known in my house, That Fucking Guy. He describes how he became a lexicographer in the first chapter — he went to York to read English because a teacher picked out the school for him (he hadn’t even read the prospectus), then applied to the OED because his then-girlfriend Hilary found the ad and picked out the job for him. He was totally unqualified and utterly unprepared for his interview, in which he chatted a little bit about Tolkein with the chief editor of the OED, and didn’t get offered the job. He just went back to school and waited. Six months later, the OED offered him a different, better job. He’d applied to one job and been through one job interview, ever. And his whole career is like that. He’s basically the definition of a mediocre white man achieving above his abilities, and it makes his ascent through the ranks read like a Gilbert and Sullivan song — he polished up that handle so carefully that now he is chief editor of the dictionary! (Sorry for the broken meter.)

So I was biased. But Simpson didn’t do a lot to help me past that, either. His narrative voice is flat and lackluster most of the time, and when it isn’t, it’s patronizing. He’s got a lot of “more alert readers will notice [extremely obvious thing]” and “did you notice [extremely obvious thing]? If not, that’s why you’re not a lexicographer.” He also works very hard to make it clear that he doesn’t love words, or love lexicography, or indeed love anything except possibly his family — he’s not enthusiastic! Really! Just an average chap who happened to be chief editor of the OED. And really, isn’t an interest in words a bit — declasse? Come on, John boy. You wrote a book about the OED and I’m reading it, so I think we can both dispense with the pretense that we aren’t interested in words, yes? Well, I could, anyway. Simpson is still out there looking down on everyone who admits to an interest in words and doesn’t get paid for it.

Also, Simpson honestly doesn't seem to know what kind of book he’s writing. Is it a personal memoir? If so, it needed to have more personal history in it — ideally enough to make the reader know and like him. As it is, he includes just enough personal detail to make it weird. Is it a history of his time at the dictionary? If so, it needed to have more information about other people at the dictionary and the day-to-day life of a lexicographer and chief editor of the OED. He does include a lot of that, but his laser-like focus on himself does rather give the impression that he and his buddy Ed were pretty much solely responsible for every aspect of the dictionary for thirty years, and was only an occasional helper at that. Is it a memoir about being the word-focused father of a disabled, wordless daughter? If so, the book needed a heart, plus a lot more about Ellie, his younger daughter, and his home life. Is it a book about interesting words? If so, it needed more than just the occasional section on a word. Instead, the book is sort of all of these things, and sort of none of them. It’s awkward.

But there were aspects of this book I did enjoy. The thing I appreciated most was that it made it clear to me what the OED is, and why it’s never been especially useful to me. I need, in my working life, an up-to-date dictionary that is about today’s usage. The OED is presented in this book as a perenially out of date dictionary about historical usage, but the reality seems to be that it’s more of an academic journal about the history of English words — one where, until recently, the editors made the mistake of trying to do almost all the research themselves. So of course the OED has definitions that haven’t been updated since 1914! Of course it is always massively behind schedule! Of course it’s unavailable without an expensive subscription! It’s a prestige academic journal. (But now, at least, they do actively solicit contributions from experts who don’t work for the OED — just don’t expect to get paid or credited.)

And the word information and history is interesting, because words always are. I’ll admit to believing that, even though it makes me a pathetic tryhard keener in the author’s view.
Profile Image for Boy Blue.
446 reviews66 followers
December 27, 2021
Dry as toast.

This was a real slog for me. The combination of personal memoir, historical account of the OED, and nuggets of etymology didn't work well. Simpson may be a brilliant lexicographer but he's not a particularly strong writer. I should have known that a man who has spent 30 years arranging things in an arbitrary alphabetical format wouldn't be particularly good at arranging a narrative otherwise. I'm tempted to tell people to skip through this like a stone across a pond, alighting only on the etymological sections (which are helpfully bolded). There are a few nuggets of wisdom in the rest of the text but they're few and far between.

One of the best biographies I've ever read is Andre Agassi's Open. It starts with the startling phrase "I hate Tennis.". Simpson could almost have got away with "I hate words.". He clearly loves research, editing, and dictionaries but seems to show open disdain for words and the people who love them. He actively says they never hire people who "love words" at the OED. Basically Simpson loves the processes but not the material. I guess that makes him a professional.

Another thing that really let the book down is Simpson's lack of a funny bone. His dusty asides didn't even get a groan out of me and I'm not even sure he thought they were humorous. There were dozens of moments to lighten the text up a little bit with some philosophical musings but no.

What did I learn?

The Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary. Part of its mandate is to track the use of English words over time. No words are ever removed.

After taking 44 years to publish the first version of the OED, they decided to do the shorter, pocket, and concise alongside a supplement and then 2nd edition. Those dictionaries are probably the ones you're familiar with. They're currently still on their 3rd revision and the 2nd revision is 22 volumes. So if you haven't got a 22 volume set, then you've got an abridged or abbreviated version.

Now it's all online but you have to have a subscription to use it. I would have liked a discussion from Simpson about that and whether free access may have given the dictionary more presence and ability to shape English and lexicographical study in the future. They seem to have ceded this space to Wikitionary. This is a worthy topic of discussion because the rest of Europe formed a committee to deal with the invasive English language. Simpson was actually appointed as Britain's representative to this committee because English doesn't have an academy or organisation shaping the language, contrary to most other European countries (think Academie Francaise).

Shakespeare was a titan in the history of English. Surprise, surprise. He is credited with coining 8,000 English words. Augmenting the word stock of English with 2,900 nouns, 2,350 adjectives, 2,250 verbs, 146 phrases, 40 interjections, 39 prepositions. Although a side note here. Part of the reason he gets so much praise and attention is that the Victorian minded lexicographers who started the OED were enamoured with him and so used his work the most out of any author for their definitions.

Samuel Johnson in his English dictionary was known for some quirky definitions. Here's his one for Oats. Oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

He superseded the then popular Nathan Bailey who was perhaps a little too evasive with some of his definitions. Spider: An insect well known.

The largest market for the OED through most of Simpson's tenure was the United States, followed by Japan. The Japanese hold the OED in great esteem, partly for their respect towards such a detailed and precise undertaking, partly for their respect towards professors and the English language, and partly because they have not achieved the same feat with their own language.

Despite taking 44 years (1884-1928) to create the first edition the OED can be proud of it's speed compared to the German Deutsches Worterbuch or Grimm Dictionary, launched by the Brothers Grim in 1854 and not finished until 1961, so 107 years later.

But the Dutch trumped that with their Woordenboek der Nederlande Taal. The first volume was published in 1864 and the final volume only rolled off the printing presses in 1998 for a grand total of 134 years.

According to the OED we have 2.5 words of Romantic origin for every word of Germanic origin. Though the Germanic words provide a lot of the heavy hitters be, can, do, have, may, must.
Profile Image for Audra.
40 reviews
February 6, 2017
This is by far the nerdiest book I have ever read but I absolutely adored it. If you are at all interested in words and the development of language or if you are curious about how dictionaries are made, then this is definitely the book for you
Profile Image for Victor Sonkin.
Author 18 books310 followers
August 19, 2018
This is a nice memoir of the chief editor of OED, interspersed with some brief essays about some words. I was shocked to read (I'm not even sure I understood it correctly) that the author's wife skipped through them, reading everything else; they are so much better than the rest of the book that I'm simply speechless. The author understands his limitations (almost) well enough, and as a history of one of the most important books in the English-speaking world (or at least a part of its history) it's quite okay.
Profile Image for Grace.
242 reviews8 followers
March 9, 2020
I enjoyed this, I learned about the OED (past and present), and I now envy my former self with access to an university subscription and the opportunity to paw through and read the historical examples out loud to my studying friends.
Profile Image for Kenneth McMahon.
67 reviews4 followers
February 12, 2019
Balderdash and Piffle, the TV show mentioned late in the book, was my first introduction to the OED and the concept of antedating. I became enamoured right away with the thought of trying to find the earliest occurrence of a word, and have long since thought "That'd be an interesting job" Turns out after reading this book that it probably wouldn't be my dream job. It still interests me for the detective/research elements but sounds quite tedious in ways that I hadn't considered.

I mistakenly thought the book would deal more with the hunting down of words and meanings (the title does kind of lean that way) but found it somewhat disappointing to discover much of it was about the history of an office department and how their ways of doing things involved through the years. I much preferred the asides where the author talked about this histories and changing meanings of certain words and would've enjoyed more of that.

In addition, I just couldn't warm to the author (outside of feeling sympathy for the issues with his daughter) As a reader, he seemed to speak down to me quite often - "If you didn't spot that, then you're not good enough to work here" (possibly, but I don't read books for criticism of my work ethic) and I'm surprised to see other reviewers describe him as funny, because I thought his attempts at humour were trying too hard.

Still, it was an enjoyable enough read, and I subscribed to the online OED afterwards (I still want to antedate words), so job done Mr. Simpson.
Profile Image for Jessica.
244 reviews8 followers
July 13, 2018
AM read-aloud, Karst pick. The house was quite divided on this one; a memoir written by the former chief editor to the Oxford English Dictionary. Karst gave it 4 stars and really found it interesting, and thought Mr. Simpson did a great job balancing the history of the dictionary, historical linguistic approaches, detailed asides about individual words, technological effects on an old institution, and personal and professional memoir. (I agree!) Meanwhile, Lena gave it only 1.5 stars. She groaned nearly every time I cracked it open, and found it slow-moving and dry. She's not really wrong, either. The story of a nearly 40-year career in dictionary editing does not make for many edge-of-your-seat thrills. But still, she heard the whole thing, and hopefully a little bit sunk in; if she now has a little more appreciation for the history behind everyday words, another exposure a different kind of idiosyncratic passion, that's fine by me.
Profile Image for Melanie.
6 reviews10 followers
October 24, 2017
Fun book detailing the author's adventure of a career as an editor of the OED. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book about how he stumbled into the job in the first place, and his first impressions of editing the OED. It was also satisfying to read the journey of the OED from a multi-volume print edition through to the online version. I'm not sure how successful the word blurb tangents were as far as reading experience goes, but they did give insight and examples that illustrated the mind of a lexicographer, which is I think what he intended.
Profile Image for Rick.
212 reviews
September 21, 2017
A book about words, and a memoir about bringing the Oxford English Dictionary into the 21st Century. I enjoyed the author's many discussions of words and phrases more than the technical aspects of putting together the dictionary. That got a bit to much into the weeds for me.
If you're a word fan, go on YouTube and search for Balderdash and Piffle, a short BBC series about selected words and phrases that exemplify the book's discussions.
Profile Image for Cat..
1,781 reviews
October 6, 2017
What a fun read! If you're a word nerd and love the OED, you will enjoy this trip through the life of a former editor of The Dictionary, who was there as it went from dusty file drawers full of cards to its current life online.
Plus, the fun of etymology interspersed among the stories--random words and where they came from and .... squee! fangirl!
I really love words.
Profile Image for Laura Jean.
1,021 reviews14 followers
May 4, 2017
A fascinating memoir from the Chief Editor of the OED. He describes the transition from print to computers and how this impacted the ways in which we can study language. Along the way he explains the evolution of several words and phrases. A very enjoyable read
Profile Image for Andrea.
430 reviews7 followers
June 4, 2018
This book has made me half-seriously consider what it would take to give up on librarianship and pursue lexicography as a career instead. I'm sure I won't, but damn if it doesn't sound right up my alley. Simpson takes us from his early days of almost stumbling into a job at the OED in the 1970s, back when they were collecting words on index cards, up through his time as chief editor, leading the massive undertaking of converting the whole publication to an online format and beginning a comprehensive update that is still ongoing today.

He gives an overview of the OED's history, as well as a look at the everyday work of a lexicographer and how that work has changed with the advent of electronic databases and the internet. In true word-nerd fashion, he also singles out individual words here and there for brief asides discussing interesting facets of their meaning, usage, or history. And in each chapter, he devotes some space to discussing his family and life outside of work. These sections seemed tacked-on, and while his experiences raising a special-needs daughter could also have been interesting, not enough information is given to really draw the reader in. He seems to be going for a sort of thematic tie-in, pointing out the irony of having a career so focused on words while having a daughter who is nonverbal, but this discussion doesn't really go anywhere.

The rest of the book is an absolute delight, though. It's both fascinating and well-written; not surprisingly, Simpson has a facility with language that makes for well-crafted and eminently readable text. The tone is intelligent but conversational, with periodic glimpses of humor -- usually dry, often self-deprecating, very British. Obviously, not everyone is the sort of nerd who wants a behind-the-scenes look at writing a dictionary, but if language is your nerd-catnip, then you should definitely give this book a try.
131 reviews19 followers
March 8, 2021
When Simpson started at the OED in 1976, the staff were working on "Q" words for the four-volume supplement (published 1972-1986). Those volumes were a supplement to the first edition (published 1884-1928). Editors were still handing quotations on slips of paper, just as their predecessors did 100 years before. By the time Simpson retired as chief editor in 2013, he saw through the press a second edition of the dictionary (consisting of the first edition, plus the supplement, plus 5,000 new words) and started to put the third edition on the Internet (old words revised and new words added every quarter). In his spare time, he headed the new words team and edited the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs.

Simpson describes the politics and economics of the dictionary. (Shockingly -- to me -- Oxford University Press considered closing the OED project after the supplement was published.) He also tells the story of computerizing the dictionary, the implications of which fascinated Simpson.

Then there are the words themselves, the raw material of the dictionary. Social changes during the decades Simpson worked on it meant that the F-word and the contemporary meanings of "gay" and "marriage" had to be grappled with. Throughout the book, Simpson will digress and provide short histories of words he uses, such as "aerobics," "inkling," and "paraphernalia."

Simpson doesn't leave out his family -- his wife's career as a literature professor and his daughters' childhood.

Usually when books by British authors are published by American presses, the spellings are changed to the American style. In the edition I read (published by Basic Books), words like "flavour" and "centre" were given in their British form. Maybe Simpson insisted on this.
Profile Image for Sherri.
396 reviews4 followers
September 14, 2018
Pedantic, funny and ideal for anyone who is curious about words and language. Simpson chronicles the transition of the intimidating OED through decades, from print to online. There are details about the politics and inner workings of Oxford, a small world of its own. He gives a brief overview of the history of the dictionary, it's traditions and methodology. Most of these elements remained the same for over 100 years and the ability of the archives and staff to maintain this is staggering.

He casually throws out random words and follows the origin and first known appearance of the word, how it changed and was added to the dictionary. This was how I learned the burpee was named for the sadist who invented it and a new definition of "skank," a word I believed I knew but apparently didnt. He also deals deftly with the most infamous four letter word and how the staff added new definitions and quotations to words that were unchanged since the beginning of the last century.

Simpson adds personal details, how he got an entry level position and became the editor. He also tells the story of his young family including a disabled daughter but does so briefly and without changing the course of the book to his personal life. Simpson seems a little embarrassed to turn away from the dictionary to personal details, but that is likely because he's a quiet person and doesn't want pity.

The work that goes into updating, creating and dealing with deadlines isn't as bucolic as some readers might imagine reading and doing research in such a venerable institution. Simpson even discourages readers, showing that good lexicographers tend to be logical and problem solvers rather than dreamy readers who love words for the sake of words.
Profile Image for Katherine.
118 reviews
May 24, 2020
I realised after finishing this book that it's third or fourth thing I've consumed on lexicography, previous things being The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary and the film version of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (plus, since modern lexicography looks kindly upon referencing non-traditional sources, a podcast interview with Jane Solomon of Dictionary.com on Talk the Talk). An endlessly fascinating subject!

I was engrossed in this book, which was written by the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary about his career at the OED, interspersed with insights into selected word histories and vignettes of his personal and family happenings. His descriptions about the thorough research and analysis process of pinning down definitions, etymologies, bibliographies, quotations, and so on just to get one word into the dictionary—so illuminating and really makes you appreciate the final product! As a technology enthusiast, I was especially hooked in the later chapters, in which he takes the reader through the OED's transition from a collection of antiquated Victorian tomes into an unbelievable networked digital mine for knowledge and exploration. (So many questions and curiosities to explore!)

Despite the joy that the book's contents offered me, I'm glad to see that other reviewers have noted the somewhat disagreeable voice of the author. Many a time, while reading the book, I made a face upon encountering a thing that felt unnecessarily resentful or holier-than-thou (never mind that the beginning chapters give a relatable account of his own humble and inexperienced start at Oxford's hallowed halls).

On "loving words", here are some of the author's thoughts on that distasteful idea: 'One of my ongoing issues is with people who "love words."' and 'I should state it outright: lexicographers are not people who "love words"—at least, not in a schmaltzy, sentimental way.' and 'So how do we weed out those word-lovers?' Okay, so, we get it, Mr. Oxford English Dictionary and (in one international sense) literally the face of the British language, you don't love words… or whatever. Not to harp on about this, but this sentiment and its repetition is so bizarre to me—for one, because this book by him could be considered a "pop" language book: it's not written in an academic style, neither is it published by an academic institution, and from all perspectives is packaged from cover to subtitle to structure as a book for the so-called "word lovers" that the author likes so much to ridicule. I suppose I can maybe see his point about glitzy, exceptional words that overshadow the foundational words—for which the research work is indeed elaborate, and he shows us that diligently—but sir I'd argue that a love and enthusiasm (did you see me use enthusiast up there?? even though the author deems it, and apparently all other even slightly non-neutral feelings, barbaric??) for words is a trait shared by many lexicographers and non-academic contributors—I'd venture to say even by those you respect.

Another prickly aspect of the book for me was the elitism and exclusivity that I felt still perpetuated, despite the author's sustained interest, throughout working on the Supplement and on New Words, in tugging the dictionary into more modern and democratic stances. Granted, he acknowledges, "I come from a generation and a society where over-enthusiasm was deplored, and keenness was deprecated." Not to mention the ancient grand elephant of working at Oxford for thirty-five years. So, maybe, analogous to the old age of OED1 and to the final chapter title, "Becoming the Past", the author's attitude is a product of his time, as in sentiments such as, "[…] it told us something about the sort of people and society we had become. Not thoughtful and reflective, but self-obsessed, capturing images of ourselves in rear-view mirrors, like selfies on sticks."

Unfortunately I can't quite account for whatever attitude is displayed in the author giving himself nines and eights out of ten compared to new lexicographer candidates, or emphasising repeatedly how difficult lexicography is, or the left-handedness Plan B test ('Instead of marking scripts at the end of an assessment session, you just look around the room and see who is left-handed, and then appoint them'), or, 'But as with any simple but crucial development (I'm giving this one more credit than it's due as I devised it), it's not the program that is important, but the very first spark of the idea' (not the same, but…), or, 'If you don't see a difference, that's one of the reasons you're not working on the OED.' (What, what is that?? Reader, are you exasperated yet??)

The rant portion of this review carried on for much longer than first anticipated—always easier to talk about things you don't like, I guess. Having said all that! I did enjoy the book as a whole and I've been exploring the online OED in great delight, truly astounded by both the palpable amount of research work that has gone into it over the years and the thrilling new capabilities afforded by digitality. (After all the fuss about accessibility, it's still a subscriber-only resource, which I'm fortunate to be able to access it through my university—hoping that you might have something similar at your disposal?)

TLDR: good read, but TFG.
Profile Image for Heather Browning.
916 reviews6 followers
December 10, 2018
On the surface, an autobiography from an editor of the OED doesn't sound particularly compelling, but Simpson is a good storyteller, and funny, so his discussion of his work, and digressions into the history of various words, never becomes dull. I also appreciated the perspective on the importance and inevitability of language change, a nice counterpoint to the apparent gatekeepers who seem determined to lock English forever in the state it was in at some arbitrary point in time.
Profile Image for John Isles.
249 reviews4 followers
December 16, 2020
The former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary tells the history of the publication, interwoven with word histories and personal reminiscences. The book retained my interest fully until it reached the publication of the Second (and last) Edition of the printed OED. Since then the dictionary has become online-only, with access by subscription. I still use and treasure the print version.
Profile Image for Cheryl .
9,271 reviews398 followers
Shelved as 'xx-dnf-skim-reference'
December 7, 2017
In this case the title is accurate, the subtitle & blurb misleading. More narrative memoir, not enough nerdy wordy tidbits. I'm paging through the darn thing but finding few passages that catch my eye.
But hey, that's just me. There is some wit, some nuggets... now that I'm done I can safely say that if you want to read this, I'll support your choice. But I won't recommend.
Profile Image for Elizabeth K..
804 reviews38 followers
July 14, 2017
This was charming, in large part because it was very British. I'm of an age where I remember when it was NEWS that the OED was going to become available in an electronic form, meaning available on disks, for libraries. Our author was the editor who oversaw this process, and that feat is at the center of this book, although it's also a memoir as well about how he first came to the OED and the things he learned about its original assembly, process of revisions, and its impact on the culture at large. He's very entertaining and tells a good story. People who like the history of information as a concept might be more interested in the detailed parts of how a dictionary moves from analog to digital, but even if that's not so intriguing, there are plenty of anecdotes and word histories interspersed throughout.

I'm not sure this would be a good choice for a person with absolutely no pre-existing interest in dictionaries or the evolution of English (I'm sure I don't know any of those people personally), but otherwise it's very cute and engaging and has lots of neat facts about words.

My only disappointment is that there weren't photographs.
October 13, 2017
In many ways, it's a shame that this book will immediately appeal mainly to those who already have an interest in lexicography or etymology. This is because, while naturally of interest to the already converted, this book has the power to convert those who didn't know they were interested!

Both well-written (as you'd expect) and surprisingly entertaining, this book is an enjoyable read both for the etymological content and the personal story underlying it. I thoroughly recommend it.
Profile Image for Jeff Zell.
391 reviews3 followers
June 10, 2017
I love to look through the many volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The dictionary provides the origin of the word, its multiple meanings, and demonstrates how a word's meaning changes over time. How did this information come to the dictionary? Who decided what information goes in there? How did they decide? How long does it take to do all of this? John Simpson provides answers to those and many more questions.

John Simpson was hired at the dictionary after he completed his Masters in the 70’s. He rose through the ranks to become the chief editor of the dictionary. He tells the story of the dictionary as it moved from using index cards for definitions to the second print edition, developing the supplement volumes for new words, and the dictionary’s slow embrace of computer technology. The updated OED was first available on CD-ROM and now it is available through the Internet.

Simpson tells some interesting behind the scene stories about editorial decisions.

For those who love words and fantasize about the glory of working for a dictionary, Simpson gives an enlightening description of the job and its many demands.

Simpson’s memoir follows a chronological order of beginning to end. He includes brief interludes about things going on in his personal life as his career unfolded at the dictionary. He speaks of his girlfriend, then later wife, Hillary, their move to Oxford, the birth of their first and second daughters and the challenges children brought to them.

The whole book is fascinating. Simpson worked at the dictionary during a time of significant change in technology and language. Simpson conveys the excitement of it all along with the exhaustion of the work.

Simpson also includes word interludes where he explains the origin and significance of different words that he uses in his text. These interludes are an intellectual treat and offer a brief pause to the story telling.
Profile Image for Robert.
497 reviews8 followers
January 19, 2017
I was a bit afraid this would turn out to be a long list of weird words and their etymologies. In fact, it turned out to be very readable, much of it being the story of how a young man, with no real plans for his future, drifted in to the Oxford Dictionary project and ended up as Chief Editor. In fact, I found his frank comments about his wife and the personal tragedy with his second daughter almost more interesting than the OED. Still, I have always been interested in words, so the book has been an easy read.

Considering the fact that the book was only printed last year, it was interesting how a few of the words then author picked out as "new words" do not seem to have made it, but the history of some of the words that did was fascinating, as was the reminder that many of us, who lived for half a century before Internet, already find it hard to imagine life without it.
Profile Image for Tracie Hall.
613 reviews6 followers
January 24, 2022
(Print: ©10/25/2016; PUBLISHER: Basic Books; 1st edition; ISBN: 978-0465060696; PAGES: 384; Unabridged.)
(Audio: No.)
*Digital: Kindle version ©10/25/2016; PUBLISHER: Basic Books; ISBN: 978-1541698635; FILE SIZE: 1508 KB; PAGES: 365 (including index)
(Feature Film or tv: No)

Series: No

I never feel like I have a large enough vocabulary and am forever admiring authors who exhibit a command of not just the meanings of words I’m unfamiliar with, but the art of putting them together, or applying them in novel (forgive the pun) ways. So, when my husband pointed this book out to me in a used book bin, I was intrigued. I have too many books already though, so I looked it up on Overdrive and checked out the only version I could find, a digital version (in other words, it wasn’t to be found in audio.)
As I’ve mentioned before, I had little time for reading print. I can listen to audio while driving, but that inadvisable with print. So, it took about 5 months to read this. I had to check it out multiple times.
Another title for this could have been “The Accidental Lexicographer”, in that Mr. Simpson describes his landing of his initial job at the Oxford University Press’s Oxford English Dictionary as nothing he’d planned for. He saw the job advertised and decided to apply, not having ever intended to become a lexicographer. He tells of his early days on the dictionary nostalgically—of encountered words written on index cards and stored until someone had time to research earliest sightings in literature.
So, the book is primarily a memoir, or autobiography, with lots of fascinating historical information sprinkled around about words and terms, and the progression of the dictionary through efforts to meet deadlines for supplement and revised editions, to his spearheading of its eventual online migration. We’re introduced to his wife, his first daughter, and then his second daughter, who, it soon becomes apparent will never share her father’s love of words, for she neither speaks them, nor responds to them, not out of any hearing disability, but rather, apparently, some sort of un-diagnosable cognitive one.
When I got to the end of the final chapter, I was surprised to see that Kindle indicated there was still an hour of reading left. So, I continued. Reading first, the many brief reviews from such popular publications “Kirkus Reviews” and “The Daily Mail” and from prominent authors such as Steven Pinker (“Enlightenment Now”), the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard; and Philip Pulman, author of “His Dark Materials.”
Then, I came to a chapter called “Further Reading” where Mr. Simpson kindly reviews some of his favorite books about the Oxford English Dictionary, one of which I’ve already downloaded in audio version called, “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages”. . . .And then there’s the index that completes the book.

John Simpson (10/13/1953): John is a member of the Order of the British Empire (OEB), and according to Wikipedia “is an English lexicographer and was Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1993 to 2013.”

Biography; Auto-Biography; Language Arts; Nonfiction

Cheltenham, Oxford

Family; Employment; Publishing; Words; English; Disability; Editing; Computer Age; Sociology; History

“For Hillary
It wasn’t until the day I finished the first draft
that I realized that this was for you.
I should have known earlier.
There are many voices that can
be used to tell a story.
These are just a few of them.”

From The Introduction:
“What the archives don’t contain---and what you have no hope of appreciating unless you come at the thing from anther angle---is the fun and excitement of historical dictionary work. If you need to, step back a few paces and draw a deep breath. This excitement derives equally from the detective work involved, from recovering information which has been lost for maybe hundreds of years (new etymological stories and connections, new first usages, links that you never knew existed between words), and from seeing exactly how words arise out of the culture and society in which they are used. Because words tell us about people and cultures that use them.
This is a very specific kind of excitement. It’s different from the knockabout excitement portrayed in Ball of Fire, my favourite film about reference books. I used to play a few minutes of this 1941 screwball comedy to groups of summer-schoolers I taught years ago. I expect they thought it was the best part of the course. In the film, the erudite(-looking) Gary Cooper is the grammarian in a team of gnomelike editors engaged in the noble task of writing an encyclopedia. The professors have led quiet lives, of the sort that quite unfits them for the vibrant work of reference editing. In particular, they are unfamiliar with the new vocabulary of jive talk and hepcats. As luck would have it, Gary Cooper stumbles across Barbara Stanwyck (disguised as the nightclub singer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, and he and his fellow editors take rather a shine to her. They sneak out at night to listen to her vocabulary at a nightclub. Gary Cooper’s article on slang for the encyclopedia benefits from his entanglement with Sugarpuss, and Sugarpuss is eventually rescued from numerous potential mishaps by the kindly hearted editors. This is not exactly how things worked at the Oxford English Dictionary. Certainly, we never knowingly employed anyone called “Sugarpuss”.”

5 stars. Great book. He mentions that he keeps a blog, so I’ll be reading that too. (http://johnesimpson.com/blog/ )

8/13/2021 – 1/22/2022
Profile Image for Robert.
103 reviews2 followers
February 13, 2017
Simpson weaves together personal and professional biography to create a (to me) fascinating memoir of his career at the Oxford English Dictionary. Simpson comes across as an appealing narrator, modest and relatable, while his professional trajectory indicates how truly impressive his achievements were (though he never trumpets them and is quick to share credit). This book also doubles as an accessible introduction to the challenges—and rewards—of lexicography and, in particular, how it has been revolutionized by rapid technological change.
Profile Image for Karen.
81 reviews2 followers
July 31, 2017
I loved this book! I enjoyed Mr. Simpson's telling of his time at the OED and the changes he experienced over the years. Adapting to the new, modern technologies was interesting to read about. Reading about how words come into use and ultimately find their way into the OED was fascinating. Yes, it is an arduous journey for words!

As you read the story the author tosses out words and their various meanings along with their Origin. This aspect is a history lesson and a fun one at that. If you love words, this is for you!
546 reviews
February 4, 2017
As a freelance editor and an avid reader, I just loved this memoir from someone with such a long history with the Oxford English Dictionary, moving from the index-card era to the digital era. So many insider snippets about dictionaries (who knew there were so many Oxford dictionaries?), publishing, words and language. I had no idea of the extent of the volunteer contributors on word use. The author was very unassuming. Very sad to read about the irony of his daughter's developmental disability.
Profile Image for Golda Finger.
2 reviews
October 14, 2018
Simpson, John. Author of a lengthy curriculum vitae, The Word Detective. Known (according to himself) for the evaporation of antipathy for English in the European Union (p302); and disdain for his readers: “If you don’t see a difference [in the meaning of hot dog], that’s one of the reasons you’re not working on the OED (p282)”. Failed humorist, etc.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
April 29, 2023
Over the years I have read quite a few books on the OED. This book made me realise that almost all of those books have been set in the early days of the OED. And those days were very much ‘paper-based’ – but also very much also the early days of linguistics. This book doesn’t really tell us much about what the various revolutions or movements in linguistics did to lexicography, but it does mention that this was a change that occurred and therefore one I should try to find out more about. It does talk in much more detail about the change that was brought about by computers being used to analyse texts and then to give powerful insights into not only the first use of words, but also into how this usage has increased and changed over time.

It also explained to me why I probably would have made a terrible lexicographer – something I’ve suspected for a long-ish time, but since I find the whole idea of it quite mind-blowing, there is always a part of me that things, ‘yeah, that wouldn’t have been a bad life’. And don’t get me wrong, I think it would have been a bloody fascinating life – but I don’t think I have the right kind of mind for it. It isn’t that I wouldn’t want to do the job, it is that I don’t think I would ever quite get it. Still, it is something I can look on at in awe.

There are little asides throughout this book where he will mention the history of a word, say how nice had originally meant stupid, and then chat about that for a little while. This really made the book quite charming, like you were talking with him and he got side-tracked – as I would like to imagine people who spend all of their time being troubled by words would inevitably do.

Anyway, one of the things he said that I particularly enjoyed was his questioning why we say ‘double O seven’ rather than ‘double zero seven’ – when we actually know the doubled item is a number, and not a letter.

There were lots of little things like that. Things that invariably made me smile. This is also an autobiography – and the part of this about his disabled daughter, and then the history of words we have used to refer to disabled children, was particularly worth reading. People’s lives are complicated and multifaceted and deeply interesting. And sometimes people face adversity in ways that are so deeply human that it makes me pause.

There really is a lot to love in this book. Mostly it is about how computers changed the nature of dictionaries – something I should have thought more about and realised. I can’t help feeling that in an hundred-years’ time there might well be a Professor and the Madman or a The Dictionary of Lost Words written about what we think of as modern lexicographers. Even if it does end up being written by some chat AI thingo.
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