Pretoria News

Life and times of word sleuth an arresting read

- 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 Of course, each volume was out of date as soon as it was published because only a dead language achieves finality.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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