Thursday, 14 April 2005

The meaning of everything

Listening to:

Stan Getz & Dizzy Gillespie, Dark eyes.

Just read:

Simon Winchester, The meaning of everything.

This is an interesting narrative history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It starts with some introductory material on the world’s earlier dictionaries (Johnson’s was probably the first real dictionary in a modern sense, but it had predecessors going back to even the seventeenth century), before moving onto the long story of the OED.

It was a long story (70–80 years) because no-one seemed to appreciate quite what a massive task it was they were signing themselves up for. Moreover, the initial choices of staff weren’t ideal as far as getting people capable of keeping things organised. It was only when the project started to attract and appoint suitably geeky obsessives that things really got going. Obsessive is good for staying the course, and geeky is good for keeping things in reasonably organised piles. Both are bad for the tendency to perfectionism, and Winchester is amusing on the various ways in which these tendencies manifested themselves.

In addition to the main, central staff (who only moved to Oxford relatively late in the piece), the OED was built on the labour of many distributed contributors, from all walks of life. Winchester provides little biographies of many of these people. Indeed he came to write The meaning of everything because of his earlier book The surgeon of Crawthorne, which is all about one of the contributors (a particularly exotic one).

A diverting read, and it even has a little cameo by Tolkien, who apparently got to do lots of tricky ‘W’ words, including “walrus”.

Blogging responsibilities go by the wayside

The more alert among my readers (making the bold assumption that I have any), will have noticed that I have not been as regular with these entries as when I first began this whole web-log business. I offer no excuses (sheer laziness is basically as good as it gets), but do think I may increase entry-frequency a little over the next few months.

Perhaps holding your breath wouldn’t be advisable.