The ABC's of the OED
His pupils at the London school adored him and said he "knows everything." Adolescent hyperbole notwithstanding, Dr. James Murray was indeed the master of many subjects. Knowledgeable in more than 20 languages, he was said in his earlier days to have taught cows to respond to the Latin names he had given them. So, when he was named editor of what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, he sensed that his appointment was "what God has fitted me for." And in that job he showed his erudition by writing or editing almost half of the first edition's 15,490 pages.
In his new book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, author Simon Winchester says Murray and his sponsors committed one major miscalculation: They figured the dictionary from the letter A to the word zyxt would require a decade to complete, but after the fifth year Murray and his assistants had only reached the word ant. Thus, the enterprise had to continue for another 44 years until 1928, when the last of the 10 original volumes came off the press.
One of humanity's monumental intellectual accomplishments, the dictionary was worth the wait, and wordsmiths will appreciate Winchester's skillful narration of why it took so long. Certainly, limited funds and the incompetence of some assistants delayed progress to a degree, but the main factor appeared to be the nature of the work itself. Murray himself explains the tedium and frustration in the pursuit of perfection: "Ten, twenty or thirty letters have sometimes been written to persons who, it was thought, might possibly know, or succeed in finding out, something definite on the subject . . . It is incredible what labour has had to be expended, sometimes, to find out facts for an article which occupies not five or six lines."The dictionary's lofty purpose was to list, define and give the pronunciation and history of every word in the English language, as well as to provide quotations from printed matter to show the evolution of each word's changes in meaning throughout the centuries. To accomplish this gargantuan task, Murray depended on thousands of volunteer readers; among them was Dr. C.E. Minor, the insane American whose story Winchester told in his magnificent bestseller, The Professor and the Madman. Murray built an ugly, corrugated iron hut and, in a reverential salute to the workplace of medieval scribes in earlier centuries, named it the Scriptorium. There, he paid his children a penny an hour (as each of the tots celebrated a birthday, the wage scale rose a penny to a maximum of six cents) to help sort the millions of quotations submitted by the volunteers. With no more than pen and paper, Murray painstakingly wrote and edited entries for 36 years, in addition to carrying on his voluminous correspondence. He died in 1915 while working on the Ts. Among those who helped to complete the work was J.R.R. Tolkien, who said he "learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life." At a celebratory dinner marking the dictionary's completion, Stanley Baldwin, England's prime minister, declared, "Our histories, our novels, our poems, our plays they are all in this one book."As he did in The Map That Changed the World and Krakatoa, Winchester blankets his subject with rich details in anticipation of readers' questions. Thus, we learn that zyxt is an obsolete form of the verb see as in "thou seest." And that's the last word on the last word. Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.