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

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  390 ratings  ·  95 reviews
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 bette
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published October 25th 2016 by Basic Books (first published 2016)
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Nov 21, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language, memoir
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
Nov 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jan 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Victor Sonkin
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) i ...more
Mar 09, 2020 added it
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.
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 mi ...more
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Laura Jean
May 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 comprehen ...more
Sep 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 cas
Kenneth McMahon
Feb 05, 2019 rated it liked it
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 thou
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 groane ...more
Heather Browning
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. ...more
John Isles
Dec 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 06, 2017 marked it as xx-dnf-skim-reference
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.
Elizabeth K.
Jul 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Elizabeth by: review in Public Books
Shelves: 2017-new-reads
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 lar ...more
Kate Precious
Oct 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jeff Zell
Dec 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, dictionary
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 i
May 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, language
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 on Talk the Talk). An endlessly fas ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 bee ...more
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jul 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
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. ...more
Golda Finger
Oct 13, 2018 rated it did not like it
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.
Deborah Adams
Dec 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed this book both for the detail and history about words, which I love, and John Simpsons since of humour about the Oxford University, the OED and himself. The small comments about his family, especially his wordless daughter, are very sweet.
This sort of book really is up my alley, as my friend said. I enjoyed The Professor and the Madman, which apparently had a different, less exciting, title as originally published in England. Simpson covers not only his history at the OED, but his personal life - which wasn't exactly necessary but ironic in that he has a daughter who never spoke, and lexicography in general and the OED specifically. I own that two-volume miniaturized version and love it. Like the others he mentioned, I had a cert ...more
Brad McKenna
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Since only those of you that will want to read this book will read a review of the book, I'll keep this simple. Here are a trio of thoughts and a handful of quotes:

Reading him describe the history of how words come into English and how they change over time is proof that every word is a one-word story.

Listing to Pod Save the People and DeRay’s mention of the #BlackLivesMatter first being mentioned before Ferguson and I’m reminded of the OED always unexpectedly finding older uses of a word. Methi
Robert Teeter
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 word ...more
Jun 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is comprised of three components: the story of the evolution of the OED over the past several decades, the occasional stories of individual words' evolution as captured by the OED (but described here in prose, not excerpts of OED entries), and, to a lesser extent, personal details from Simpson's life. I'm not a big fan of memoirs unless I'm interested in the person writing them to begin with, so the memoir stuff didn't do much for me, except the ironic detail that the man in charge of ...more
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English lexicographer and former Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

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