The Meaning of Everything

In 1998, Simon Winchester published The Surgeon of Crowthorne (or The Professor and the Madman as it’s known in the US). It was an account of how a former US military surgeon (who’d seen service in the Civil War and been broken by his experiences) moved to England and was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a complete stranger. While in prison, he became one of the most prolific and vital contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. The book mixes the surgeon’s story with the story of the making of the dictionary and finds time along the way to consider forms of madness, lexicography, the first dictionaries and the actual process of compiling a dictionary. 

It’s a wonderful story and so well told that it’s very hard to put down. The pages glide by. Yet I heard it described some years later as a failure because it couldn’t make up its mind. Was it about the surgeon, or the OED? A similar thought occurred to others, one of whom was an editor at the Oxford University Press, and who asked Simon Winchester if he’d like to write the full history of the OED. He did. This book is the result.

And it’s not half as engaging as the The Surgeon of Crowthorne. It covers the development of the English language, the first rudimentary dictionaries, the decision to compile the OED and then the 70 years it took to complete the task. It’s an impressive, thorough piece of research and writing. But it just isn’t as much fun to read as The Surgeon. Nor, and this really surprised me, did I come away with any more information about the actual work involved in creating a dictionary. If anything,  I knew less than I did after reading The Surgeon.

If you want the facts and the history, read The Meaning of Everything. If you want a gripping, well-told narrative, choose The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

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