One of my Christmas gifts was Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I am very much looking forward to reading. How can I resist a book whose acknowledgments include the line “Philip Durkin, an expert on etymology and a philologist at the OED, was most helpful in navigating the minefields of Chapter 1, and worked with Elizabeth on such vexing matters as the supposed origins of words like periwinkle, skirt, and ketchup“? There was a time when the job description I most wanted was that of “philologist.”
Those of you who live in snowy climes will be amused to learn that another of my presents was a set of cross-country skis, with the associated poles, boots, gloves, &c. I’ve never been on skis in my life, but clearly it’s time to start learning.


  1. You are a philologist, my dear, even if it’s not in your job description.

  2. cross-country skiing is great fun. If there is enough snow I highly recommend the state park up near Mohonk, NY. The trail is fairly flat and good for beginners (which I still am since I go so rarely).
    I read another book about the OED which I liked – “The Professor and the Madman.” I’d be curious how much new ground is covered in this book over that one, which gave great detail about the process of making the OED.

  3. That was one of my gifts, too. Looks like a book I’ll be using anecdotes from at dinner parties (a smiley would be inserted here), and on purely visual (and aesthetic) terms, the man on the jacket makes me feel a great sense of ease and jollity and I like the map on the inside of the covers. Hmm, I really must improve my bookmaking vocabulary, even though I pretend to some knowledge and appreciation of the design of a good book.

  4. Yes, that map was the first thing I remarked on when I opened the book — I’m a sucker for maps.
    Kerim: Thanks for the tip; I’ve hiked around Mohonk in the past, and I’ll bet it would be a great place to ski.
    Dorothea: Bless you!

  5. Philo-logos, by any description of that word, would be a fitting epithet for you, LH.
    Now go ahead and bless me too.
    [as I race to the OED to parse “periwinkle”].

  6. A Russian woman in Moscow once informed me in her English learned from books and teachers who had never left the USSR, that she was a philologist. She did not say she was a linguist and I believe she was using a cognate rather than the real English word that would denote what her profession was. Any ideas?

  7. Toby: In Russian universities, a department of philology corresponds to a department of language and literature in an American university. We don’t have a convenient word to describe someone who teaches in such a department; the Russians use filolog, which they quite naturally translate “philologist.”

  8. Do post what you think of Simon Winchester’s latest. I ran into it the other day, and it piqued my curiosity. Although I enjoyed The Professor and the Madman, it often felt to me like a short story or an article worth of material stretched into a full-blown book. I’m curious what else he has discovered about the making of the OED to write another book about it.

  9. Unfortunately, philology has almost ceased to exist in North America as an academic field. Note the recent remarks by a Romance philologist at Yale: Reflections on Graduate Education.

  10. My favorite literary critics are philologists: Auerbach, Spitzer. And easy reading ability of at least five modern classical and modern languages was a minimum requirement of the field. Ten was probably average.
    One of my heroes, Paulk Pelliot, did his research in between fifteen and twenty languages, but he probably also read languages like Spanish and Portuguese which were not used in his studies. I occasionally wonder whether he bluffed sometimes — how many would really would be able to question what he said about medieval Armenian dialects, or the periodization of Syriac?
    All this is a casualty of the move of elite education away from classical and modern languages in the direction of sciences and things like psychology which resemble sciences. An ordinary HS graduate in 1850 would often have a working knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, and German — though HS graduates were then an elite.

  11. Long ago and far away, I wanted to be a philologist. Then I discovered that (a) it was impossible in the American academic setting, and (b) actually, phonetics bores me; it’s the history I enjoy. So I study a particular version of the history of words, and I get on well enough. 🙂

  12. If anyone is interested in hearing Simon Winchester talk about the OED, I audio-hijack the program Lingua Franca on Radio National of Australia and last week captured an episod featuring a portion of a speech he gave at a literary conference. It sounds like part of his standard presentation, but it is entertaining. He is a good speaker, with few flubs, nice bits of British-style humor, and the ability to make you always want a bit more.
    I’ve put it on my web server in MP3 format, . It is also available on the Lingua Franca page in Real Audio format, .
    NB: The book is published by my employer, and I casually know Simon, in a superficial, professional way.

  13. John Elliot says

    A piece of trivia which I’m not sure if anybody has already noted here: in Australia and, I think, the UK “The Professor and the Madman” is sold under the title “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”.

  14. Oh, my world. It is ok

  15. As it turns out, I hated it.

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