The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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January 7, 2018

The Word Detective

      Lexicography is pretty sharp-edged. There's no place for wobbly or brittle thinking. You see a problem and leap in to solve it; you don't wallow in it, indulging yourself in the beauties of the language. It's necessary to compare the usage you are addressing with hundreds of other examples from the same semantic area, to see what is special about your use. Or if you are trying to write or update a definition, you assume all of your source material is wrong until it proves itself not to be. You need a scientist's sense of distrust and a writer's sense of elegance.
      People often think lexicography is easy; it's not. It involves qualities most people don't have. Stamina, for one. There are times I think that's the most important quality for a lexicographer. ...
      ... Lexicography is slow and involved; the excitement comes as the fuse burns slowly toward the answer. But its not always climactic. ... We need slow-burning but explosive bursts of concentration. ...

I would always have high hopes for a memoir about working with words, and this one definitely fulfilled them.  In 1976, John Simpson joined the editorial staff working on a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, which was originally published in installments between 1884 and 1928.  He  then managed a major, partly technological, process to meld the first edition and the four-volume supplement into the second edition.  It was fascinating to read that there was a strict policy that no changes or updates would be made at this point to the content from first edition, some of it almost a century old; there just wasn't time or resources enough.  Later, when he began overseeing the third edition, which brought the OED online, he decided to begin work in the middle of the alphabet, because the entries at the beginning of the alphabet were rougher and needed more work.

Part of the fun of reading this book was seeing how complex, and yet old-fashioned, the work was.  And I especially enjoyed the chapter near the end, when he describes the qualifications, and the process, for hiring lexicographers to work on the new edition. (Apparently, being left-handed is best, and saying sensitively on your resume that you're fond of walking and reading is sure to land you  in the reject pile. Oh, well.)

The stories he tells, and the author's voice, made this book very readable and engaging, And every few pages, there's a word -- like 'hone' or 'niche' -- in bold type, and then there's a sidebar that describes the etymology of the word and how it has changed, in usage or pronunciation or propriety, over time.

If nothing else, I'm a person who reads books about dictionaries, and I'm very happy about that. :)

The Word Detective:  searching for the meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary,
by John Simpson

Basic Books, 2016
Borrowed from the Boston Public Library


Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Well this sounds delightful! Though I would clearly never be hired by him as walking and reading are my favourite hobbies (also, I am right handed).

JoAnn said...

To be honest, I have at least a couple of books about dictionaries on my wish list, too. Sounds like I should add another ;-)

Audrey said...

I wouldn't be hired either. :) But I think you'd both enjoy reading about it!

Christine Harding said...

This sounds fascinating - I alway enjoys books about words.

Thank you for visiting!

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