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  • The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary—A Memoir by John Simpson
  • Enid Pearsons (bio)
The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary—A Memoir by John Simpson. New York: Basic Books, 2016. Pp. xvi + 364. $27.99. ISBN: 978-0-465-06069-6.

Anyone who thinks that the longtime chief editor of the revered Oxford English Dictionary (OED) might have written a stuffy or plodding autobiography will be happily disappointed. John Simpson’s The Word Detective comes alive from the very first sentence of the introduction, in which the author makes known his desire, since his earliest days as a “cub lexicographer,” to “pick away at the stereotypes imposed on lexicographers” by the general public, the media, and even lexicographers themselves.

From an American perspective, it could be said that Simpson actually fits the stereotype of a British lexicographer: A student of English literature “at university” (when not engaged in such classic English pursuits as cricket and field hockey), he gravitated to literature of the Old, Middle, and Early Modern English periods, and in graduate school became a full-fledged medievalist. In this he was much like the chief editor of the OED at the time, the medievalist and college rugby player Robert Burchfield, whom Simpson was destined to succeed.

But the book begins even earlier, with Simpson’s first encounter with Hilary, a young woman likewise bound for university to study English literature, who years later—and in retrospect, inevitably—would become his wife. It is the proper beginning for a book that, as one might almost guess from the tripartite title, is really three books in one: an introduction to lexicography for the uninitiated, a history of the OED during the most crucial period in its existence since completion of the first edition in 1928, and a personal memoir of a life in language and (though Simpson is not one to show emotion, at least in print) in love.

Lexicographic professionals may be drawn to this book primarily as the ultimate insider’s account of a crucial transitional period for the Oxford English Dictionary, and indeed for the entire field of lexicography. When Simpson arrived from graduate school in 1976 to work on the Supplement to the first edition of the OED under Burchfield, lexicographic methods had scarcely changed since the nineteenth century. Old timers like me might even feel a twinge of nostalgia at his description of the process of sorting through citation cards, looking up references, drafting entries by hand, and marking up galleys. By the time [End Page 134] Simpson retired, both the writing of dictionaries and the using of them had become largely a matter of sitting at a computer screen—though with the oceans of data that now exist, more intellectually absorbing and challenging than ever.

From the outside this might look like a simple and inevitable matter of adopting new technology as it came along. But it was neither simple nor inevitable. There were times when, but for vigorous and forward-looking leadership by Simpson and others, the OED might simply have been left to sit on the shelf as a monument to the scholarship of previous centuries. Guiding this massive work through a period of rapidly evolving technology could be compared—though this is not how Simpson puts it—with steering a supertanker through constantly shifting shoals. The risk of running aground was great. From 1985 to 1993, Simpson and his longtime OED comrade Edmund Weiner (yet another medievalist) served as co-editors of the dictionary. Among other things, they coordinated production of its second edition (OED2), in which novel computer techniques and tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of hours of keyboarding and proofreading were marshaled to synthesize the first edition with the four-volume Supplement and 5,000 entirely new words and senses.

In 1993, at Weiner’s instigation, Simpson became chief editor. It was the dawn of the Internet age, and over the next twenty years Simpson, with Weiner as his deputy, oversaw the transition of the OED to that medium and the launching of the next grand plan...


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pp. 134-141
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