The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary
by John Simpson
Basic Books, 2016
At first glance, John Simpson’s memoir, The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, might seem daunting. With more than 300 pages bound between two tall, hard covers, Simpson’s work is longer—and heavier—than most summer reads. And, by focusing on one of the world’s leading authorities on the English language, it might also seem fit for only a small, highbrow audience. But as anyone who reads Simpson’s memoir will discover, its pages aren’t filled with sharp-tongued lessons on using English words correctly. Instead, they’re printed with personal and engaging stories that not only entertain readers but cleverly inform them, as well.
From start to finish, Simpson’s memoir tracks his ascent up the OED editorial ranks. Joining the staff as an editorial assistant in 1976, he ultimately served as the OED’s chief editor until 2013. But as Simpson traces the growth of his career, he also sheds light on some of the fascinating—and, perhaps, unexpected—parts of working at the OED. In a particularly interesting anecdote, Simpson describes his time spent shuffling through and poring over “slips.” Small index cards documenting unique words and phrases in historical texts, slips use to provide the OED with cited examples to supplement its definitions. Yet, unlike what most readers might assume, Simpson explains that many of these cards didn’t come from OED editors tasked to scan published works. Instead, they were volunteered by “ordinary people who wanted to share with Oxford in the exploration of the English language” (33). Through facts like this one, Simpson not only pulls back the curtain on the OED, teaching readers about the methods of its creation. He also portrays the production as inviting and exciting, an intriguing contrast to the dictionary’s usual “dull,” “stone-cold sober” reputation (3).
More than simply offering an insider’s look, though, Simpson also uses another tool to entertain and inform his readers: the OED dictionary itself. Several times each chapter, Simpson includes a boldfaced term, signaling a later examination of its historical and linguistic backgrounds. While the dictionary-like digressions might sound dry or uninteresting at first, especially for readers who choose Simpson’s work for a love of memoirs than one of words, they’re not. For one, Simpson doesn’t analyze terms that are obscure or irrelevant to his readers’ lives; instead, he picks ones that are familiar and found in everyday conversations. What’s more, Simpson also concentrates on changes in the terms over time, emphasizing curious nuances in their uses today. Indeed, whether investigating the origin of “selfie” or tracing the “fossilization” (170) of “hue and cry,” Simpson’s detours add not only intellectual depth to his personal account but creative texture, as well.
Still, even as praise for Simpson’s narratives and knowledge will move some readers to pick up The Word Detective, others will remain hesitant, believing that the book focuses too much on the intricacies of language. Yet, if nothing else, perhaps this will convince them otherwise: Simpson isn’t a “word-lover.” Though Simpson never admits this fact so explicitly himself, he makes it clear throughout his work. From his disdain for long, “show-off” terms (166) to his disinterest in choosing favorite words, Simpson’s confessions undermine assumptions that he is obsessed with language. But they don’t negate his appreciation, a feeling that permeates his memoir—and resonates with readers, too.