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Book Review: The Word Detective - Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson
One great thing about the work book sale is that you can try something different knowing that, even if it doesn't work out, it has cost very little; in many cases I suspect it's cheaper even than a secondhand charity bookshop. This one looked curious, but risky: it could be very dry. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very readable. It's part personal biography (John Simpson, not that John Simpson), part a biography of the OED itself. Simpson joined Oxford University Press in 1976 and worked his way up in the Dictionary department. Slowly the prospect of a Second Edition of the OED emerged - the first, having been completed in 1928 with an irregular series of supplements since. At the same time, technology was evolving, and Simpson sought the help of others and the budget to computerise the half million definitions contained on card indexes. It's not a political book but one can easily imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place; the impression conveyed is that OUP always did the right thing, but perhaps sometimes after exhausting some of the other options. The Second Edition combined the original with the supplements, and was available on CD-ROM as well as in print, but rapid advances pushed for a Third Edition, and an evolving online resource. Simpson brings the story to a personal conclusion with his retirement in 2013. The personal aspects of the biography are small, and focus mostly on his family life, including coping with a disabled daughter (he doesn't name any condition, but some of it sounds like severe autism). Scattered throughout, Simpson highlights words in the main text and chooses to divert into their etymology, history and current usage, which reveals his enthusiasm and helps to breathe life into his subject.
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