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MikeP

"Check Six"

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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary - Simon Winchester What Goodreader wouldn't like a story about words? Easily 3 Stars for this tale of how an American doctor played a central role in the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was amazed and humbled by the story of James Murray, who only had formal schooling to age 14, yet rose to lead the OED effort. The man (and many of the age) had a thirst for knowledge and education that would be nice to see rekindled today. Dr W.C. Minor was interesting but there was not that much primary information on his interaction with Prof Murray. There seemed to be a lot of speculation or educated guesses about him.

I enjoyed the history of dictionaries and how they came to be. Along with many others, I find it surprising that Shakespeare had no dictionary or thesaurus equivalent to help out. In fact, "to look up" (as in find out information) comes along much later. The daunting task to compile this dictionary would take 70 years to complete. How to do it? The story serves to remind that there is not much new under the sun. We think Wikipedia or "crowd-sourcing" is something new and unique in our technological age of wonders. Ummm, not so much:

Except that here Trench presented an idea, an idea that—to those ranks of conservative and frock—coated men who sat silently in the library on that dank and foggy evening—was potentially dangerous and revolutionary. But it was the idea that in the end made the whole venture possible.

The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature—and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals—must be instead “the combined action of many.” it would be necessary to recruit a team—moreover, a huge one—probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.

The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before. But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some real merit. it had a rough, rather democratic appeal. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dictionary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the notion that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexical conduct.

Any such dictionary certainly should not be an absolutist, autocratic product, such as the French had in mind. The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships. They abhorred the idea of diktats—about the language, for Heaven’s sake!—emanating’ from some secretive body of unaccountable immortals. Yes, nodded a number of members of the Philological Society, as they gathered up their astrakhan-collared coats and white silk scarves and top hats that night and strolled out into the yellowish November fog: Dean Trench’s notion of calling for volunteers was a good one, a worthy and really rather noble idea.


A very enjoyable and quick history of the signature English dictionary!