ATG Book of the Week: The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary

by | Mar 20, 2017 | 0 comments

Title: The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary
Author: John Simpson
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-0465060696, $27.99; 
Imprint: Basic Books, 2017

Can you drink a glass of balderdash? What do you call the part of a dog’s back it can’t scratch? And if, serendipitously, you find yourself in Serendip, then where exactly are you?

The answers to all of these questions—and a great many more—can be found in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. And there is no better guide to the dictionary’s many wonderments than the former chief editor of the OED, John Simpson. Simpson spent almost four decades of his life immersed in the intricacies of our language, and guides us through its history with charmingly laconic wit. In The Word Detective, an intensely personal memoir and a joyful celebration of English, he weaves a story of how words come into being (and sometimes disappear), how culture shapes the language we use, and how technology has transformed not only the way we speak and write but also how words are made.

Throughout, he enlivens his narrative with lively excavations and investigations of individual words—from deadline to online and back to 101 (yes, it’s a word)—all the while reminding us that the seemingly mundane words (can you name the four different meanings of ma?) are often the most interesting ones. But Simpson also reminds us of the limitations of language: spending his days in the OED’s house of words, his family at home is forced to confront the challenges of wordlessness.

A brilliant and deeply humane expedition through the world of words, The Word Detective will delight and inspire any lover of language.



“The memoir of a lexicographer doesn’t sound like an enticing prospect (Johnson’s famous definition of lexicographer: a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words’), but Mr. Simpson pulls it off… An engaging memoir…” Wall Street Journal


“A sustained and sincere reflection on what it means to make a dictionary – the toil, the puzzles, the costs and the profits.” Guardian

“A charmingly full, frank and humorous account of a career dedicated to rigorous lexicographic rectitude…It is astonishing that anyone could have done this taxing job, without a break, for over 35 years…. [Simpson] is an absolute hero.”  New York Times Book Review


“The excitement of lexicography is of a different kind, and the book does a splendid job conveying it. Cleverly, throughout, he has scattered definitions of words marked in bold that have some relevance for his story and in the process provides mini-lessons on how English has developed through the ages.” New Criterion


“An irresistibly wry account of the OED’s last forty years.” Literary Review

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