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Why it wasn't quite as easy as ABC.

Byline: By David Whetstone

Dictionaries are something most of us take for granted - like the pyramids. They are substantial, they are there and you'd only miss them if they weren't.

It is only when you really start to think about them that you begin to wonder: how on earth did they do that?

In the case of dictionaries (he hasn't tackled pyramids yet but you wouldn't rule it out), writer Simon Winchester stirs the grey matter with a gem of a book called The Meaning Of Everything, which is published this week.

It tells the story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This was one of those great Victorian enterprises. It spanned a full human lifespan, engaged many of the greatest minds and sparked enough controversies to fuel a soap opera for a fortnight.

Simon Winchester cut his teeth as a journalist in the North-East - on this newspaper, in fact. He remembers it was a happy time, especially after he persuaded the editor to make him science correspondent. "That meant I had complete freedom and didn't just have to cover car crashes. I went all over the North of England."

He became The Guardian's regional correspondent based in Newcastle and in 1969 was sent to Ulster to cover the Troubles. It was the start of a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent.

Simon was giving a talk in Oxfordshire when a lady in the audience suggested he write the history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

His most successful book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, told the astonishing tale of William Chester Minor, a former surgeon-solider in the United States Army, who went mad and was sent to Broadmoor after killing a workman. From his cell, he became one of the valued volunteers who collected words and definitions for the OED.

The publishing lady suggested that since Simon had already covered this footnote in the OED story, he might care to tackle the full history.

Well, he already had all 17 volumes. "I'd bought a second-hand edition when I lived in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. It was during a typhoon and I remember struggling to get all these books in the boot of a taxi."

Simon traces the dictionary project to a meeting in 1857 when the Dean of Westminster, Chevenix Trench, delivered a paper titled On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries.

Those deficiencies would not be put right entirely until 1928 when the OED, detailing 414,825 words, was finally published.

Among those who had helped to bring it to life was James Murray, son of a poor family from Denholm, near Hawick, who, it is said, taught a young Alexander Graham Bell the basic principles of electricity. Murray was appointed editor of the OED project in 1879.

He succeeded Frederick Furnivall whose eccentricity is celebrated in Simon's book. Brilliant but disorganised, he loved practical jokes, sculling and the company of young women.

He caused a scandal when, aged 58, he married his 21-year-old maid who subsequently was burned to death while setting fire to old letters.

"An amazing fellow," says Simon. "He nearly scuppered the project but one of the things about the OED is that almost everyone involved with it seems so much more brilliant than anyone you meet today."

Simon Winchester lives in Massachusetts now with a library in his garden. It is housed in an old granary which he had taken down and reassembled to accommodate his books. His current project is an account of the San Francisco earthquake due to be published for the centenary in 2006.

* Simon Winchester will be talking about The Meaning Of Everything (Oxford University Press, pounds 12.99) at 5.30pm tonight in the Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University. Admission free.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 21, 2003
Words:624
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