The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary; A Memoir

John Simpson. Basic, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-465-06069-6
Language lives and breathes, and nowhere is it examined so microscopically as at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary. Former editor-in-chief Simpson peered through that microscope for more than 30 years, beginning in 1976, during the OED’s most dynamic period of growth. This is just the sort of memoir you’d imagine from the hands of someone who’s spent his life chasing down the peculiar history of words and writing clear and careful definitions of them and their origins: precise and thorough. A meticulous storyteller, Simpson chronicles his years at the OED from his very first assignment—reading a translation of Christian Metz’s Film Language searching for words used for the first time in English (he discovers prefilmic and screening room)—to his appointment as coeditor of the OED and his promotion to chief editor. Simpson gracefully weaves into his memoir little definitions of words, providing examples of the work of a lexicographer. For instance, the phrase hue and cry, he observes, likely arose from the French hu e cri, which was the “outcry from the aggrieved party calling for the pursuit of a felon,” though by the 17th century in English the word hue had faded from use and become a “fossil.” At the turn of the 21st century, Simpson oversees the publication of the online edition of the OED in order to make it easier to use and to “open up access to a wider readership.” Simpson’s vibrant and inspiring memoir gives us a glimpse into life as detective in the realm of words. Agent: David Kuhn & Becky Sweren, Kuhn Projects. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/08/2016
Release date: 10/01/2016
Open Ebook - 384 pages - 978-0-465-09652-7
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