“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.