My reading life is one of disappointments these days. Having been badly let down by The Greek War of Independence, I’m now grinding my teeth over Simon Winchester‘s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I got for Christmas and had been very much looking forward to reading. Mind you, I’ve only read the first chapter, so I haven’t even begun the story of the OED and can’t report on how well he tells it. But I can tell you the book is very poorly written.
This is particularly annoying because Winchester’s reviews are nearly unanimous in their praise of his style: “fluent, eloquent” (Michael Glover, Financial Times), “Winchester writes with his customary colour and verve” (Anne Wroe, Sunday Telegraph), “Winchester is an extraordinarily graceful writer” (Lev Grossman, Time), &c &c. RALPH (The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities) called this book “impeccably written.” So I expected that even if Winchester’s grasp of the study of language turned out to be lacking (as of course it did), I would be carried along by that fluent, eloquent, graceful style. Reader, I was not.
I am going to get quite detailed, because it’s the only way I can take my revenge for the ground teeth, so anyone with no appetite for dissection of sentences should stop now and wait for the next post.
The prologue begins with several pages about Derby Day of 1928 (“A great horse race on a sunny afternoon… All England, it is probably safe to say, languished that day in the careless blue-skies rapture of early summer, with little but pleasure… If these were rather carefree and prosperous times, for very many they were also cultured and learned times besides…”—you’d never know this was a period of intense class struggle in England, and Stanley Baldwin had crushed the miners’ union just the previous year, but let it go, this isn’t that kind of history) and continues with a rhapsody about the dinner held that evening at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London: “It was a dinner for 150… each one of whom was monumentally distinguished in achievement and standing… a stellar gathering of intellect, rarely either assembled or able to be assembled since”—”either assembled or able to be assembled”? what? let it go—”There were two bishops, three vice-chancellors, a dozen peers of the realm (including the Earls of Birkenhead, Elgin, Harrowby, and Crawford & Balcarres, the Viscount Davenport, the Lords Aldenham, Blanesburgh, Cecil, Percy, Queenborough, Wargrave, and Warrington of Clyffe), 27 knights of the realm…”—my eyes began glazing over, but I thought “OK, this is a British book aimed at Brits, and Brits love aristoporn the way Yanks love movie gossip, let it go”—concluding with a lengthy excerpt from Baldwin’s speech celebrating the completion of the OED (“And all that was most suitably and appositely said by the Prime Minister…”). It all seemed like padding to me, but I reminded myself that people like a little scene-setting, and I turned to the first chapter with undiminished anticipation.
I zoomed through a few pages describing how the future England was settled by Celts, conquered by Romans, and invaded by Teutons, then was brought up short by the following footnote to the Old English word Englisc: “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh.” I read it and reread it, and still could make no sense of it. “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh“? And what were those hyphens doing there? My brow began to furrow, and I thought that at the very least the book could have used more editing. On the next page, in the course of a brief mention of futhorc runes, he says “with th—known as the thorn—being elided into a single symbol”; again I was puzzled—it’s the symbol that’s known as thorn, not whatever he means by the “th being elided.”
That was only an appetizer; it got worse. In discussing the many new words introduced during the Renaissance, he introduces a list with “sometimes the loveliness of the assemblages are just too beguiling to pass up”; aside from the failure in number accord (“the loveliness… are”), I have no idea what he thinks he means by “assemblages.” In a footnote to the list of borrowings he says “The distance between two caravanserais—a day’s travel, in other words—is known by the Turkish loanword menzil“; for one thing, the preferred spelling is manzil, for another it means not ‘the distance between two caravanserais’ but ‘a halting-place; the distance between two halting-places, a stage,’ and for a third it’s not from Turkish but Arabic—all this according to the OED itself!
I don’t want this to be any longer than it has to, and I respect the intelligence and literacy of my readers, so I will simply quote a series of sentences, putting in bold the bits that reveal bad style or plain idiocy and adding the occasional bracketed remark:
“Among those [Shakespeare] used, but he almost alone, were soilure, tortive, and vastidity, which mean, as one might expect, staining, twisted, and big.” [Those are some vastidity words!]
“A glance at any map will suggest hundreds upon hundreds of constructions and imports that we now know to be more a part of today’s English than they ever were of the native tongues where they were first born. Glasnost and perestroika, for example…”
[Talking about the fact that nobody had written an English dictionary before the seventeenth century:] “Nobody, it turned out, had ever bothered.”
[Talking about Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus:] “The tiresome making of this book once exasperated the ‘utterly profligate’ Mrs Cooper so much that she tossed the entire manuscript into the fire—prompting her imperturbable husband simply to sigh wearily and begin compiling his book all over again.” [Vas you dere, Sharlie?]
“But… neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day… had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that went by the name that was invented in 1538, a dictionary.” [Speak for yourself! And aside from that, the word dictionary is first attested in 1526 ("And so Peter Bercharius in his dictionary describeth it"), not 1538, and dictionarius or dictionarium had been used for centuries in Latin, so that the English word hardly needed to be "invented"; again, this information is right there in the OED.]
“He lists for their assistance words like bubulcitate, sacerdotall, archgrammacian, and attemptate—all of them extravagances now mercifully gone the way of the doublet, the ruff, and the periwig.” [Sacerdotal is still a perfectly good word. Bubulcitate, by the way, is 'to do the office of a Bubulcus or Cowheard,' in case you were wondering.]
“The magisterially famous Dr Johnson…”
“The French have had their Académie Française, a body made up of the much-feared Forty Immortals…”
“On being accused, by a genteel society lady, of failing to include obscenities in [his dictionary, Dr Johnson] replied… ‘Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.” [The lady was not "accusing" him but complimenting him. This is a very famous anecdote.]
[On the success of Noah Webster's dictionary:] “As a result the word Websterian—meaning ‘invested with lexical authority’—rapidly entered the language…” [OED: Websterian (wEb'stI@rI@n), a.1 Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Webster's Dictionary (see prec.) or any of its later versions or abridgements.]
“[The Philological Society's] first paper, which reportedly stimulated animated discussion among the members, was a classic of arcane enthusiasm: ‘The dialects of the Papuan or Negrito race, scattered through the Australian and other Asiatic islands.’” [In other words, it was a paper on what we would now call the Austronesian languages. Those wacky, arcane philologists!]
“In the very early days a most curious parallelism developed between philology and, rather curiously it would seem today, the science of geology…”
“There were papers also on the complexity of some foreign tongues—on ‘The Termination of the Numeral Eleven, Twelve and the equivalent forms in Lithuanian’, for example, and a spirited piece on the Tushi language, which is (or was) apparently well known in the Caucasian hill town of Tzowa, and which might be regarded today as a somewhat tricky tongue for beginners, given that the Tushi for the number 1,000 is the sonorously complex form of words sac tqauziqa icaiqa. In June 1857, while the members were gamely pausing to learn Tushi counting (cha, si, xo, ahew pxi, jetx …)…”
Ahahahaha! Those funny woggy languages with their silly, sonorous words for big numbers! Amazingly enough, we don’t have to wonder idly if “the Tushi language” is still spoken in “Tzowa” (or Tsova as it’s been transliterated for the last hundred years or so), this being the 21st century and not the 19th; the Ethnologue entry informs us that it’s spoken by 2,500 to 3,000 people [3,420 according to the new 15th edition] (and it’s known as Bats these days). And we don’t have to depend on crumbling old Society reports for lists of numbers, either, since Bats is on the Zompist list of “Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 4500 Languages” in the Caucasian section, right under its fellow Nakh languages Chechen and Ingush; it turns out the first six numbers are ch=a, shi, qo, =’iw?, pxi, and jetx. Not that the differences in transliteration are particularly important, but checking the list against a modern reference might have saved him from omitting the comma between ‘four’ and ‘five,’ which makes “ahew pxi” look like a single number.
Picky, you say? Sure. But this is a book published by Oxford University Press about the OED; it celebrates the decades-long labors of some of the most dedicated and detail-oriented scholars ever assembled for one task. If it’s not worth being picky about that, what in heaven’s name is it worth being picky about?