The Reading Life: Lexicography

I’ve always thought that one cannot have too many dictionaries, thesauri, and other wordbooks. And it turns out that if you fill your house with enough dictionaries of different sorts — say at least one for each room in the house — you’ll start wondering how they were made and what sort of person becomes a maker of dictionaries.

This week’s edition of The Reading Life is all about dictionaries and the people that make them. That is, lexicography and lexicographers.

The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything is the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It tells the story of the 71 years, nearly half a million head-words, and the nearly 2 million quotations that it took James Murray and others 71 years to assemble into what is still the greatest and best of all English dictionaries. Winchester’s book is the story of both the dictionary and those who made it.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman, an earlier book by Winchester, tells the story of one of the more eccentric contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. W.C. Minor was an American, a veteran of the Civil War, and a certified lunatic who did his research and submitted his dictionary entries from his rooms at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Lexicographical research become Minor’s therapy, of a sort, and kept him sane enough to live decently in the asylum and to keep hunting down words and their first uses. One ought to keep in mind, however, that Minor was only one of the more extreme examples of eccentricity in the band of obsessives who helped put together the OED.

Caught in a Web of Words by K.M. Elizabeth Murray

Caught in the Web of Words is the biography of James Murrary, the great lexicographer and first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, written lovingly by his granddaughter. While this is much more of a biography of Murray than anything else, it cannot help but also tell the story of the OED, for the the dictionary and its production were Murray’s life.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

If you’ve read this far, you already know that the OED, besides being the greatest of all dictionaries in English, attracts its share of eccentrics, oddballs, and madmen. Shea’s oddity is not devoted to the making of dictionaries.  Instead, he collects them and reads them. Shea spent an entire year reading the entire OED, which runs to 20 folio volumes in print. Reading the OED is in part a compendium of Shea’s favorite words, found while he was reading the OED, and the story of what it took undertake and complete such a mammoth task (and if you don’t think it’s mammoth, just try reading a single page or a single fascicle of the OED).  Shea contends that everyone should read an entire letter in a decent dictionary, at least some time in one’s life.  I tend to agree.

The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

The Man Who Made Lists is the biography of Peter Mark Roget, who liked to make lists of words — in part to hold the melancholy and madness rife in his family at bay. Many writers and scholars don’t think highly of Roget’s Thesaurus, but it’s a great book for anyone who likes words and lists and lists of words. The fraught and sometimes painful story of the maker of the Thesaurus is both fascinating and sad in turns.

The Warden of English by Jenny McMorris

The Warden of English is the biography of H.W. Fowler, the compiled and editor of what is still known to most of us simply as “Fowler”: Modern English Usage. Fowler himself was a schoolmaster who later quit his job, moved to Guernsey and did dictionary work for Oxford.  He wrote Modern English Usage on the side. The best part of this biography, written by an Oxford archivist, is that it’s packed with quotations from Fowler’s letters, which are witty, vibrant, and colorful in a way that his dictionary and usage writings are not.

The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton

This is the story of the making and publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961 and the controversy that erupted in both the mainstream press and in the academic world. It’s both the single best account of the controversy and the story of how the dictionary was planned and assembled, and the editor-in-chief Philip Gove.

By now, I’m sure that you’re also in the mood for a good dictionary.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th edition
Funk & Wagnalls Practical and Standard Dictionary of the English Language
A Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson

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About Amanda K

Amanda K holds a master's degree in Library and Information Studies. She's a housewife, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sewist, and an aspiring gourmet home cook. View all posts by Amanda K

One response to “The Reading Life: Lexicography

  • Ji-myoung Choi

    Without a “mad man”, no good dictionary would have come out in the world. A dictionary is a record of history which is minute and delicate.
    As one of lexicographers, it’s a pity that their dedicated efforts aren’t recognised properly. They don’t make dictionaries for visible returns but out of obligation and a sense of vocation. I hope lexicographers and ordinary people kept better relationship with each other than now.
    Dr. Johnson’s dictionary is very insightful and I hope I could get a copy one day. My favourites are “Concise Oxford Dictionary” and “The New Oxford Dictionary of English”.

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