For New York Times, November 2016

THE WORD DETECTIVE: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary, a Memoir By John Simpson, WORDS ON THE MOVE: Why English Won’t – and Can’t ­ Sit Still (Like, Literally) By John McWhorter.

The Word Detective

Imagine the progress of the English language as a moving train. It need not be a fast-moving train; in fact, it helps if you picture it chugging along majestically through a flat landscape. Our two authors are both actively interested in observing the progress of the train. One has spent his entire career practising lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary; in relation to the train, he tirelessly jogs along just behind, and every so often plants a flag on the track to mark the precise place where the train formerly was. The other author is a well-known professor of linguistics who skips along beside the train, waving cheerfully, and occasionally performing somersaults to express just how happy he is to be keeping up. The train, of course, takes no notice of either – just as it has taken no notice of all the righteous idiots who have, periodically, stood in front of it, commanding it to stop. As we bring our locomotive analogy to a merciful close, it is worth glancing back down the line to see all the broken bodies of those many pitiful idiots, stretching way back to the horizon.

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary, from its origins in 1857, is not a new story for many of us. Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything (2003) gave us a vivid account of the tortured and lengthy history of the mighty first edition (completed in 1928), overseen up to the letter T by the superlatively bearded Scottish brain-box James Murray. Winchester then brought us up to date by way of the four-volume Supplement (finished in 1986), the computer-assisted 20-volume second edition (1989) and right into the online era. The interesting question of the profitability of the dictionary was not Winchester’s concern. No, it was the sheer lexicographical brain power that was celebrated in The Meaning of Everything. One of Murray’s first-edition associates was quoted as saying that one’s first twelve languages were “always” the hardest.

John Simpson joined the dictionary in the mid-1970s, in the era of the Supplement, which was overseen by the New Zealander Robert Burchfield. Simpson worked his way up, and by the time he retired in 2013 he was Chief Editor. Like Winchester, he omits to mention whether the dictionary makes money (perhaps it doesn’t), but otherwise The Word Detective is a charmingly full, frank and humorous account of a career dedicated to rigorous lexicographical rectitude. What changes Simpson has seen! When he began at the OED, there was an afternoon ritual called “Dictionary Tea” when the god-like Chief Editor (Burchfield) would mix with his mortal underlings and lead them in a sort of awkward philological seminar. Burchfield comes out of this book quite badly, I must say. He is referred to, unaffectionately, as “our Chief Editor”, and there is a long-ago incident with a chocolate orange that evidently rankles with Simpson to this very day.*

“But tell us about the lexicography,” you cry. Well, I doubt there has ever been a better account of how a person with a capacious brain sits down with a cup of tea and a pile of cards and sets about creating authoritative definitions. Throughout the text, Simpson inserts potted word-biographies (apprenticeship, deadline, inkling) which illustrate both the complexity and “excitement” of the work. It is astonishing that anyone could have done this taxing job, without a break, for over 35 years; especially while being engaged in heaving and shoving the whole intractable project from its original state as a set of heavy (and instantly outdated) books towards being a lively interactive online tool. He is an absolute hero. Where Simpson’s lexicographical practice has most notably differed from that of his illustrious predecessors is in the scope of sources used for word-citations. In this matter above all he is justly proud. Basically, where Burchfield favoured citations from literary authors (who are slow to use new expressions), Simpson got words from car magazines.


John McWhorter’s Words on the Move is far more polemical in style; in fact it’s a sort of master-class in how to prove a point. McWhorter first staggers you with a glittering analogy, and then, once you are off-guard, he bombards you with so many (brilliant) examples that resistance is both useless and out of the question. I have to say, I loved Words on the Move, but it’s possible I am suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. I keep saying to people who aren’t particularly interested, “Let me list the five ways that new words are – and always have been – created out of old ones. First we must consider modal pragmatic markers.”

Afterwards, it can be hard to remember precisely where all McWhorter’s killer examples fitted into the argument. How did he defend “a big ask”, again? Oh yes, he explained that words such as “walk” and “scratch” were verbs that became nouns in just the same way. How did he justify “irregardless”? By making us understand that it is human nature to worry whether words are strong enough to do the job in hand, so we unconsciously give them a bit of help. For example, I know someone who always says she will “double-check” something, when all that she means is “check”. McWhorter tells us that “whelm” used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. Generally (he says), words change not because we’re too ignorant to use them correctly, but because we are so anxious to communicate efficiently, which is encouraging to know. I personally appreciated the book’s comprehensive and entertaining section on “backshift”, when the emphasis on a word travels from, say, “hot-DOG” to “HOT-dog”. In Britain, the history of backshift is a bit more complicated – but it enrages me when people in British historical dramas say “CIG-arette” when at the time they would have said “cigar-ETTE”.

I mentioned McWhorter analogies. It’s why I had the nerve to do the train thing. He is irrepressible. He invokes clouds, parades, movie-making, medieval painting; meanwhile, “changes in meaning are as natural to words as changes of pitch are to music”; a new perspective is “something that needs to be pointed out, like showing someone that deer just over the hill fixing to bolt away”. I liked best the idea of the English language as a long-running stage show that needs to be kept fresh. If all else fails, however, McWhorter just draws on his apparently effortless working knowledge of every bloody language on the planet (“I think of Mualang, a language spoken in Borneo”) – at which point victory is his. McWhorter clearly expects resistance from his readers, as he defiantly sets out to defend such terms as totally and like and ’n shit. Why else would he, like, try so hard? Of course, in the end, resistance is what he meets, when he asks us to agree to Shakespeare in translation (ooh, I don’t think so), and to accept that “literally” doesn’t cause genuine confusion (except that sometimes it does). But you have to be impressed by him, really. That train won’t ever shake him off, will it? It is totally going nowhere without him.


* A “chocolate orange” is an inexpensive British confectionary item externally shaped and internally segmented to resemble a well-known citrus fruit with a tough bright reddish-yellow rind.


Share on