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John Simpson unravels his pro­fes­sional and per­sonal history in his newest book, ‘The Word Detective.’ | Amazon

“Dic­tionary, n. A book which explains or trans­lates, usually in alpha­betical order, the words of a lan­guage or languages.”

Thus speaks the Oxford English Dictionary.

For the lit­er­arily inclined, the online OED is a treasure trove of ety­mology and usage, and today’s tech-savvy logophiles can thank John Simpson, the influ­ential dictionary’s editor-in-chief for almost 40 years, for this dig­i­tized treasure trove of ety­mology and usage.

In “The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All in the Oxford English Dic­tionary,” pub­lished Oct. 25, 2016, by Basic Books, Simpson recounts his life’s work: dusting off the old OED and show­casing the world’s most com­pre­hensive, reliable dic­tionary on the Internet.

“The Word Detective” is an OED entry writ long, a deluge of delightful detail about a database that has become a lifeline for under­graduate English essays and serious lin­guistic schol­arship the world over. It’s a history of the OED, a history of the English lan­guage, and (perhaps sec­on­darily), a history of the editor himself.

And for both lan­guage lovers and lan­guage ana­lysts, the book will be “enlight­ening” (n. the imparting of knowledge or increasing of under­standing and insight).

As befitting a memoir about a dic­tionary, Simpson weaves “The Word Detective” together with extended OED-style entries of intriguing words; he began his work with the dic­tionary as an “apprentice” (n. A learner of a craft, first ref­er­enced in 1362 in the poem “Piers Plowman”) in 1976 after studying medieval English lit­er­ature at York College in England.

In 1976, when Simpson stumbled upon the OED, def­i­n­i­tions were still cobbled together by expert word­smiths wan­dering through miles of hand­written index cards, as they had been since the dictionary’s first edition in 1857.

The OED has always been “crowd­sourced” (from n. The practice of obtaining infor­mation or ser­vices by solic­iting input from a large number of people). Readers sent in note­cards of new and unusual word uses from their casual reading. According to Simpson’s charmed account, images of elderly English ladies filling long after­noons sipping tea in the parlor while doing the Lord’s work for the OED are not far from the old-fash­ioned reality.

Yet from these seem­ingly random scraps, lex­i­cog­ra­phers (n. A writer or com­piler of a dic­tionary) scrabbled together one of the most com­pre­hensive running accounts of a lan­guage ever conducted.

The mission of the OED had always been ambi­tious: “It would provide a potted biog­raphy of English words, pro­viding accurate def­i­n­i­tions of their meanings, detailed infor­mation on word origins, and — cru­cially — quo­ta­tions showing real, doc­u­mentary examples of any word or meaning from its ear­liest recorded use right up to the present day,” Simpson writes. 

In keeping with the time-honored tra­dition, Simpson began his work in the lower ranks of the OED by reading dull biogra­phies and obscure sci­en­tific accounts to trace the usages of certain words as far back in time as possible.

But as he moved up the ladder to edit a sup­plement of words from the 20th century, Simpson soon decided this method was too old-school to keep up with the new words flashing by outside the ivied walls of Oxford University.

As an editor, Simpson developed his flair for the con­tem­porary, and a fix­ation on keeping up with the lan­guage as it evolved into fas­ci­nating new usages: “My pref­erence was for less ‘lit­erary’ and more ‘popular’ vocab­ulary — more ‘world’ English,” he writes of his time as an editor for the New Words section of a sup­plement to the OED.

The twists and turns of Simpson’s various edi­tor­ships are far less arresting than the labyrinth of words he nav­i­gates on the way to the head of a project to com­pletely overhaul the OED in a Second Edition 150 years in the making.

Though the old tea-and-index-card system had the advantage of giving new words time to settle down into the lan­guage, it couldn’t keep up with rapid changes after the explosion of tech-lan­guage fol­lowing the rise of com­puters, a phe­nomenon that fas­ci­nated Simpson — and set him to scheming new word-hunts. 

There were new terms to define (“LOL” appeared on a message board on May 8, 1989), usage changes to trace (elec­tronic mail becomes e‑mail becomes email), and new oppor­tu­nities for the study of lan­guage: Could a com­puter tell lex­i­cog­ra­phers if there were more nouns or adjec­tives in the English lan­guage (today, the ratio is 2 to 1, but that number has fluc­tuated in the past for reasons as yet unex­plored)? Could they track a word’s movement over time and map its movement across oceans? Could they include new def­i­n­i­tions from people and pub­li­ca­tions across the world?

They could. After a massive five-year project from 1984 to 1989, Simpson accom­plished what no other editor had ever done: He brought an entire lan­guage onto a disk the size of his palm, and in 1995, out into the infinite space of the Internet.

“Up until now, dic­tionary readers had been restricted to ‘single look-up’ … and serendip­itous browsing,” Simpson writes. “For editors, we would be cre­ating a massive dynamic and updatable lan­guage resource.”

This feat is drama enough — what other editor can say he lit­erally held the English lan­guage in the palm of his hand?

But com­pared with the weight of this quiet accom­plishment, his attempts to weave his per­sonal life in this his work seem slight. Though the father who struggled with the silence of a mute, men­tally hand­i­capped daughter is cer­tainly poignant, Simpson’s influence rests on other lives — and words — than his.

In his approach to lan­guage, Simpson is a sci­entist, not a poet. And he prides himself in his ana­lytical approach to his work. He crit­i­cizes self-pro­claimed “lovers of words” and rejects them in inter­views for posi­tions with the dic­tionary because pre­cision is more important than passion: “Words are not dolls: who cares about ‘antidis­es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­anism’ from the point of view of real lan­guage, or ‘floc­cin­aucini­hilip­il­i­fi­cation’ … or malle­maroking (look it up)?” 

The English lan­guage is not to be admired; it is to be hunted through labyrinths of novels, aca­demic papers, science text­books, TV shows, coffee shops, and bars. It is to be studied, inter­ro­gated, back­ground-checked, and argued over late into the night. Only with such a broad scope and lin­guistic pre­cision can the OED keep tabs on a lan­guage that changes with each text we send, each headline we read, and each hashtag we retweet.

For all that, though, Simpson is a genial, expert (and drily British) guide through the English language.

Though he claims his view shuns romance, no man who spends three pages on the myriad uses of the word “as” (metaphor, com­parison, cau­sation — the pos­si­bil­ities are endless) lacks love for the English language.

For Simpson, though, the OED is pri­marily an impressive work of schol­arship: “Britons … have never been quite sure whether the OED is a work of mon­u­mental schol­arship or simply opens up to the world the British at their most obsessive,” Simpson writes.

We can thank Simpson’s obsession — and his edi­torial vision and lexical pre­cision — for the labor of love and excellent schol­arship that is the online OED.

And that’s some­thing worth “malle­maroking” about.

Look it up.