Friday, May 06, 2005

Do you know...

the story behind the most referred book of all, the Oxford Dictionary?

Even though a few variations of the dictionary exists at that time, it was in 1857 that Dean Trench suggested the project to compile all known English words complete with their histories and meaning, in other words the meaning of everything.

Its first editor Herbert Coleridge died a year into the project. His successor, Frederick Furnivall was disorganized and a womanizer, almost causing the collapse of the project. In 1879, came James Murray, a former bank clerk with only an honorary degree to his name and a keen interest in lexicography. He played a major part in forming the dictionary that we know today.

Apart from the permanent editor and sub-editors, volunteers were engaged to help compiling a series of quotes containing a certain word. A letter was sent out to the public in search for volunteers. Many answered the call. They were then given a list of books to read. The volunteers will then write down "a quotation for every word that strikes you as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way". The quotes must be written on a paper measuring about 6 5/8 x 4 1/4 in (about a quarter of the A4 paper) and mailed to them. The papers are put into it's respective 'pigeon-hole' and sorted. The editors then read them and come up with a clear definition of the word.

Some of the volunteers include Fitzedward Hall an American recluse. Even though he and Murray became great friends they had never met. Another volunteer was William Chester Minor, a surgeon during the American Civil War and a schizophrenic who murdered a man for no reason. He worked on the dictionary from Broadmoor Asylum for the Clinically Insane. He once mentioned that working on the dictionary kept him halfway sane. Other known contributors include Frederick Sweatman, Charles Onions and J.R.R. Tolkien who was mostly responsible for the W section.

It was determined that the dictionary will be completed within 10 years. In truth it took 68 years to finish.

It was published in stages being the words A - Ant featured in the first part.

These are some of the things I learned from Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, to describe it briefly, a biography of the Oxford Dictionary. I never knew that making the most trivial book can be such an interesting story too.

I was a bit nervous when I bought the book. I was afraid that it might be too boring or dry that I would just read a few pages and then shelve it again like what I did with a few other books. I'm happy to say that it wasn't.

Of course the subject matter is not that complicated. It's about words, English words, nothing technical about it. But the narration is smooth and simple apart from the over-bearing use of '--' followed by long clauses. It reminds me of an episode of Stark Raving Mad when Stark and his editor argued over the use of '--' and 'comma'.

Within the simple narration you will find a dash of some complicated words like rebarbative, oleaginous, desuetude, and sycophantic among other. What's the point of writing about a dictionary if your reader is not going to use it right?

If you're wondering...
rebarbative - to be repellant / irritating
oleaginous - resembling or having the properties of oil / marked by an offensively ingratiating manner or quality
desuetude - to become unaccustomed
sycophantic - characteristic of a swindler
(Meanings courtesy of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 5th Edition. Sorry, I don't have an Oxford Dictionary Image hosted by )

PS : George Clooney is 44 today! Image hosted by

Ok! I'm going to watch Pitch Black now.

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