Cover image for The meaning of everything [the story of the Oxford English dictionary]
The meaning of everything [the story of the Oxford English dictionary]
Winchester, Simon.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
[New York?] : Harper Audio, 2003.
Physical Description:
7 audio discs (8 hrs.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
General Note:
Subtitle from container.

Subject Term:
Format :
Audiobook on CD


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Material Type
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Item Holds
PE1617.O94 W555 2003C Adult Audiobook on CD Audiobooks

On Order



From the bestselling author of
The Professor and the Madman,
The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa

Writing with marvelous brio, Simon Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language and pays homage to the great dictionary makers from Samuel Johnson to Noah Webster before turning his unmatched talent for storytelling to the making of the most venerable of dictionaries - The Oxford English Dictionary. Here the listener is presented with lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but sickly first editor Herbert Coleridge, the colorful, wildly eccentric Frederick Furnivall, and the incomparable James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent half a century as editor bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the minutiae of dictionary making, brings us to visit the unseemly corrugated iron shed that Murray grandly dubbed The Scriptorium, and introduces some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to the murderous W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption.

The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument erected to a living language.


Simon Winchester pays fascinating homage to the wordsmiths involved in the making of the preeminent document on the English language: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Author Notes

Simon Winchester was born in London, England on September 28, 1944. He read geology at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. After graduation in 1966, he joined a Canadian mining company and worked as field geologist in Uganda. The following year he decided to become a journalist. His first reporting job was for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1969, he joined The Guardian and was named Britain's Journalist of the Year in 1971. He also worked for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times before becoming a freelancer.

He is the author of numerous books including In Holy Terror, The River at the Center of the World, The Alice Behind Wonderland, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and.Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. In 2006, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to journalism and literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary has been burnished into legend over the years, at least among librarians and linguists. In The Professor and the Madman (1998), Winchester examined the strange case of one of the most prolific contributors to the first edition of the OED--one W. C. Minor, an American who sent most of his quotation slips from an insane asylum. Now, Winchester takes on the dictionary's whole history, from the first attempts to document the English language in the seventeenth century, the founding of the Philological Society in Oxford in 1842, and the start of work on the dictionary in 1860; to the completion of the first edition nearly 70 years, 414,825 words, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations later. Although there is plenty of detail here about the methodology (including the famous pigeon holes stuffed with quotations slips from contributors around the world), the emphasis is on personalities, in particularames Murray, who became the OED's third editor in 1879 and died in 1915, well into the letter T. The project backers complained loudly about the slow pace over the years, but the scrupulous care taken by Murray and the many others who worked on the OED gave us what is arguably the world's greatest dictionary. Publication of this book coincides with the OED's seveny-fifth anniversary, even as work on the third edition is under way. --Mary Ellen Quinn Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

With his usual winning blend of scholarship and accessible, skillfully paced narrative, Winchester (Krakatoa) returns to the subject of his first bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, to tell the eventful, personality-filled history of the definitive English dictionary. He emphasizes that the OED project began in 1857 as an attempt to correct the deficiencies of existing dictionaries, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson's. Winchester opens with an entertaining and informative examination of the development of the English language and pre-OED efforts. The originators of the OED thought the project would take perhaps a decade; it actually took 71 years, and Winchester explores why. An early editor, Frederick Furnivall, was completely disorganized (one sack of paperwork he shipped to his successor, James Murray, contained a family of mice). Murray in turn faced obstacles from Oxford University Press, which initially wanted to cut costs at the expense of quality. Winchester stresses the immensity and difficulties of the project, which required hundreds of volunteer readers and assistants (including J.R.R. Tolkien) to create and organize millions of documents: the word bondmaid was left out of the first edition because its paperwork was lost. Winchester successfully brings readers inside the day-to-day operations of the massive project and shows us the unrelenting passion of people such as Murray and his overworked, underpaid staff who, in the end, succeeded magnificently. Winchester's book will be required reading for word mavens and anyone interested in the history of our marvelous, ever-changing language. (Oct.) Forecast: Winchester could have a second hardcover bestseller this year with this, boosted by a seven-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Winchester celebrates the 75th anniversary of the OED by producing a remarkable account of the men who shaped the venerable dictionary, from Samuel Johnson, whose earlier dictionary established the standard; to Dean Trench, who presented a paper championing the need for a new dictionary; to various flamboyant characters, such as William Chester Minor, a word collector who worked from a mental institution and the "madman" in Winchester's The Professor and the Madman; the eccentric and disorganized Frederick James Furnivall; W.J.E. Crane, so ornery that lawyers were needed to force him not to burn his collection of O-words; James Murray, who though not formally educated was nevertheless most responsible for seeing the project through; and others. Winchester wonderfully commemorates this monumental record of English and ultimately produces an inspired story of conflict, madness, genius, and inspiration so amusing that at times it reads like fiction-but it isn't. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Univ., Farmville, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A genteel progress through the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, this book starts with the history of the language itself and the antecedents of the OED, before a leisurely discussion of how the OED came to be. Unfortunately, much attention is directed toward the dictionary's early years and near demise, but little to the latter stages of its creation; one suspects the author was limited by Oxford to a certain number of pages--an ironic echo of the history of the OED itself, and of the ways Oxford tried to limit its scope in its early years. Despite the inattention given the later years, after reading this book one has an understanding of the genesis of the OED. The book's strength consists of its portraits of the individuals associated with the OED, in particular James Murray, though one could have wished for more about the later editors. Excellent photographs and a six-page index enhance this relatively slim volume, which makes a nice acquisition to support the study of either 19th-century England or lexicography. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers and academic collections, upper-division undergraduate and higher. W. Miller Florida Atlantic University