John Simpson quotes his wife’s description of him as “an ordinary bloke in an extraordinary job.” That job was the editorship of the Oxford English Dictionary, a career he recounts in a genial memoir, The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, 368 pages, $27.99).
Drifting into lexicography as a weedy university graduate in English literature, he discovered the fascination of tracing language through its etymological, historical, and cultural aspects, teasing out details through research into sources. He sees his role as that of an “historical word detective.”
Hired by the formidable R.W. Burchfield, Mr. Simpson learned lexicography from the ground up, discovering, among other things, that “language doesn’t usually invent, but it recycles and welds together what it needs from existing materials.” (This is much like the evolutionary process as described by Stephen Jay Gould in The Panda’s Thumb.)
The OED on which he began work in 1976 was a continuation of the Victorian operation created by Sir James Murray: scores of volunteers submitting word entries, lexicographers sorting handwritten cards into immense files, strenuous efforts to produce printed supplements to the great original edition of 1884-1928.
As he matured as a lexicographer and began to move up in the ranks, Mr. Simpson developed key convictions about the OED: that it should be “a modern, dynamic work that kept up with the language,” that it should preserve all its accumulated historical information, and that it should reach beyond the established literary world to document English from everyday sources.
In twenty years as the chief editor of the OED, he had the opportunity to put these convictions into practice, particularly in the labor of putting the enormous corpus online and beginning to update entries untouched since Sir James Murray finished with them in Victoria’s reign.
Along the way, we have glimpses into the lexicographer’s lot. Many of his colleagues at the OED were left-handed. (Significant?) Make is “a deceptively short and ancient word with viciously sharp teeth.” One needs to develop strategies to deal with people hampered by “the inability to see beyond the past”—the “Oxford coma.”
It’s doubtful that someone who was merely “an ordinary bloke” could rise to the position of chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and maintain it for two decades, but Mr. Simpson’s memoir is amiably low-key and unprepossessing. In addition to his work on the dictionary, he gives us glimpses into his marriage, the birth of his two daughters, and the sadness of caring for a child with a severe disability.
And he breaks up his narrative with interpolations on specific words that turn up in his text—vet, deadlines, clues—showing in each the etymological, historical, and cultural elements that an historical word detective’s inquires disclose.
“Lexicography is pretty sharp-edged,” he writes. “There’s no place for wobbly or brittle thinking. You see a problem and leap in to solve it; you don’t wallow in it, indulging yourself in the beauties of the language. It’s necessary to compare the usage you are addressing with hundreds of other examples from the same semantic area, to see what is special about your use. Or if you are trying to write or update a definition, you assume all of your source material is wrong until it proves itself not to be. You need a scientist’s sense of distrust and a writer’s sense of elegance.”
Moreover, he writes, you need stamina. James Murray had it. R.W. Burchfield had it. So, manifestly, does John Simpson.