Review: The Word Detective by John Simpson

I’ve often been asked, “You’re the kind of person who likes to read the dictionary, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not just someone who enjoys reading the dictionary. I’m also someone who takes great pleasure in reading books about the dictionary. In this case, it’s John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, 2016).

(Basic Books)

The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review late last year. I’ve been criminally remiss in reviewing this title, I admit. I blame it on all the Shakespeare I was reading then, but there’s no excuse. Once I started this memoir, chronicling John Simpson’s career at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)from a freshly minted postgraduate, rejected for the first position he applied for at the dictionary in 1976, to its Chief Editor, who had brought the dictionary into the modern era when he retired in 2013—I couldn’t put it down.

I couldn’t put it down: That’s a cliché, I know, and you’d think I’d be able to string together a fancier phrase after reading a book dedicated to “the definitive record of the English language, featuring 600,000 words, 3,000,000 quotations, and over 1000 years of English,” as the OED online boasts—rightfully. But book review bromides be damned: It’s our language, it’s our English, worts, clichés, and all. I suspect Simpson would agree, as he notes:

One of my ongoing concerns is with people who exaggeratedly enjoy the strange and peculiar words of English—those words which apparently amuse and entertain, but which don’t contribute anything useful to the language, and certainly don’t represent the important words of language study. People of this persuasion gravitate towards words which just seem to be there for effect, to be cossetted and purred over. But words are not dolls: who cares about antidisestablishmentarianism, from the point of view of real language, or floccinaucinihilpilification (“the action or habit of estimating as worthless”—at one time the longest word in the OED), or mallemaroking (look it up)?…Maybe I think of these show-off words as elitist, or at least undeservedly attention-seeking. They are easy to like (or so it seems). But they are outliers—not central to the real language.   

As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’m a man after Simpson’s own heart, more interested in the surprising origins behind our most everyday, taken-for-granted words than the big, long, flashy ones. Or should I say sesquipedalian? (As Simpson would say, look it up.) And so one of the things that hooked me about The Word Detective was precisely that: Simpson highlights words in his text—computer, crowd-sourcing, enthusiasm, hue and cry, juggernaut, marshalling, redux, to give you a sample—and then offers pithy asides about their history, sort of like an in-text Mashed Radish blog post, except far, far more expert. He was the Chief Editor of the OED, after all. Here’s his vignette on deadline (and yes, there is a wee bit of self-punishment in this selection, though I’m mostly just blown away by its origin):

Times of crisis are times when new words are generated. In mid-nineteenth-century America the dangerous and yet thrilling push into the Wild West, and then the California Gold Rush, followed by the Civil War, bought a jumble of new words into the emerging variety called American English. (At the moment, Charlotte Brontë is accredited with the first recorded use of “Wild West”: I don’t think that will last.) Much of this new vocabulary is self-confidently adventurous, like the new country: badlands, bloviate, bodacious, bonanza, braggadocious, buckaroo (that’s enough of a list).

The earliest recorded use of the term dead line comes from angling (1860). It’s not a new creation in the world of words, but it takes another approach—it’s a creative metaphor. A dead line is one that doesn’t move or run while it’s lying in wait for fish to bite. To get into the stream of the modern meanings of the term we need to travel over to America around the end of the Civil War, where the same pairing of words produced a new and unrelated meaning. It seems that the mid-nineteenth-century Americans did not hold enlightened views on prison management: they apparently used to draw lines around military prisons, and if a prisoner went beyond that line, he would be shot. The dead line. Here’s what the prolific writer Benson John Lossing said, in his Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of American (vol. 3, 1868): “Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the ‘dead-line’, over which no man could pass and live.” Deadlines became less lethal in the early twentieth-century America, when the newspapers picked up the expression to describe their time-limit for receiving copy. Make the deadline or else. Then it drifted into numerous other areas of life, including the OED’s own schedule.

And this is what it’s like to read Simpson: He’s incredibly erudite, but that never gets in the way of lucid, and often wry, writing. Trust me: I took careful notes for my own etymological blogging from this book.

“Including the OED’s own schedule”: For all the tasty word tidbits, The Word Detective is primarily a story not about the words in the OED themselves, but the story of the OED during Simpson’s time there. And this was another reason why the memoir hooked me. Simpson transports us into the OED’s offices and its countless slips—or index cards on which various words, phrasings, and expressions that might prove useful to its dictionary-making—in “the dictionary’s word dungeons,” historically sent in by public readers, including one devotee, Marghanita Lanksi, whose contributed over 250,000 index cards on her own. He takes us along the journey of his own development, from his early efforts updating the entry of queen to his visionary efforts updating the OED from a print-based Victorian artifact to a living, breathing, and constantly evolving organism on the internet—all while indefatigably preserving the OED’s core mission as a definitive record of the English language, past and present.

I use the OED online just about every day, and so I was captivated by learning how Simpson helped achieve the truly herculean task of bringing the OED first onto computers and then online. It took a lot of coding, a lot of time, a lot of brilliant and dedicated minds, a lot of elbow grease—and thank God for it. This tireless toiling made the OED not just a definitive record of the English, but also a tremendously democratic one, too, free to be combed through or wandered in by reference-seekers and word nerds alike.

This elbow grease—the unglamorous grit behind the “majestic Oxford English Dictionary,” as Simpson aptly puts it—made The Word Detective yet more compelling. As Simpson begins his memoir: “Nobody thinks dictionaries are written. They are just there, and have been since the dawn of time: on your desk, on your parents’ bookshelves, just behind the surface of your computer screen.” But written they are, painstakingly, subject to the same pressures of budgets, deadlines, organization, and technology as any venture is. Each etymology, each definition, each quotation is a human product—of a very human language, always changing, never sitting still. 

Finally, it’s a humility that stays with me from Simpson’s memoir. And not just humility before the OED as a cultural achievement or awe in the face of this weird, wild, and wonderful thing we call language. For Simpson chronicles another story in The Word Detective: Ellie, one of his daughters has a serious developmental disability that has  mostly left her without verbal language. With grace and poignancy, Simpson, who has made a life of words, describes the power, beauty, joy, and yes, challenges, of a greater, more profound place, a place beyond words:

Even if I can’t communicate with [Ellie] verbally, spending time with her reminds me that interaction isn’t only verbal. Seeing her takes you into a corridor where communication fluctuates with the passage of time: sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. When it’s weak, it seems almost to vanish away, and you wonder if you will see it again. When it’s strong, it’s the most important thing there is. Wordless, but powerful.

Oh, and I did look up mallemaroking. First attested in 1812, the OED defines it as the “boisterous and drunken exchange of hospitality between sailors in extreme northern waters.” It comes from the Dutch mallemerok, “silly woman, fool,” joining mal (silly, foolish, mad) and merok (fool). 

By John Simpson
364 pp. Basic Books. US $27.99

m ∫ r ∫


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