Life and times of word sleuth an ar­rest­ing read

Pretoria News - - NEWS - The Word De­tec­tive by John Simp­son (pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown)

THE Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary (OED) was an am­bi­tious project to chron­i­cle the de­vel­op­ment of the English lan­guage.

It was em­barked on in 1857 and com­pleted in 20 mas­sive vol­umes in 1928. Of course, each vol­ume was out of date as soon as it was pub­lished be­cause only a dead lan­guage achieves fi­nal­ity.

So the ed­i­tors im­me­di­ately started try­ing to catch up with a four-vol­ume Sup­ple­ment com­pleted in 1986, but while they were work­ing on this the lex­i­con was ex­pand­ing even more rapidly.

Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances of­fered the means of con­vert­ing a cum­ber­some multi-vol­ume mon­u­ment to schol­ar­ship into an ex­cit­ing in­ter­ac­tive tool and it was the ed­i­tors’ will­ing­ness to em­brace modern tech­nol­ogy (and Amer­i­can ex­per­tise) that en­abled them to pro­duce a thor­oughly up­dated com­puter-aided sec­ond edi­tion as early as 1989.

John Simp­son joined the OED in 1976 at the age of 22 and stayed with the dic­tio­nary for the rest of his pro­fes­sional life. He worked his way up in the or­gan­i­sa­tion and was chief ed­i­tor from 1993 to 2013. This meant that he started there dur­ing the Sup­ple­ment phase and played a ma­jor role in the sub­se­quent changes and chal­lenges.

His dy­namic ap­proach was soon ev­i­dent in his use of non-lit­er­ary sources. For the early oc­cur­rences of new words sources such as mo­tor cy­cle, jazz and other fringe mag­a­zines pro­vided ev­i­dence of the so­cial and cul­tural change that un­der­lay their ap­pear­ance.

That Simp­son de­lighted in his work is ev­i­dent not only from the years he spent do­ing it but also from the vi­brant and cap­ti­vat­ing ac­count that this mem­oir pro­vides of it. Sa­muel John­son con­tended that “to make dic­tio­nar­ies is dull work” and this stereo­type has long pre­vailed. But from his very first sen­tence Simp­son re­pu­di­ates it with wry good hu­mour and la­conic wit.

The Word De­tec­tive is not only about words; it is also about a life, a life on which the au­thor re­flects with the em­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing but clin­i­cal pre­ci­sion that he prac­tised in fram­ing con­cise def­i­ni­tions. This is most strik­ingly re­vealed in the poignant nar­ra­tion of the sad­ness and help­less­ness that he and his wife ex­pe­ri­enced as a re­sult of their sec­ond daugh­ter’s pro­found dis­abil­ity. “Com­pared to this,” he says, “dic­tio­nary work was easy.”

Any­one in­ter­ested in lan­guage will en­joy and profit from this dis­arm­ingly mod­est story of the life and work of a metic­u­lous and highly com­pe­tent word de­tec­tive. – John Boje

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