The Word Detective

Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary


By John Simpson

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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.



Serendipity, Perhaps

Nobody thinks dictionaries are written. They are just there, and have been since the dawn of time: on your desk, on your parents’ bookshelves, just behind the surface of your computer screen. They are the nasty medicine which you are handed when you display even the slightest ignorance about the meaning of a word. But somebody has to write them. Can you imagine a job where you arrive at work each morning and start planning how to define the next word in the alphabet? Back in 1976, that is precisely how Hilary thought I might earn a living. I thought I was more interesting than that, but it just goes to show that I must be a bad judge of character.

Hilary and I had met four years earlier, when a mutual friend realised that we were both heading off to the University of York to study English literature, and thought we might like to meet up in advance. Serendipity, perhaps. So we got together in a pub in south London, talked about the course we were soon to embark on, and wondered where the future would take us. I was at a disadvantage, as, even though I had been accepted on the course—and it was a tough, well-respected one—I had omitted to consult the university prospectus in advance, relying entirely upon my teacher’s recommendations. Hilary already knew all the course modules, and which ones she was likely to take. Nevertheless, we kept in occasional touch, and several months later we decided to travel up to university together. Even then, eighteen years old to my nineteen, Hilary was naturally talkative, self-confident, artistic, and aware of the big picture, while I—at least to the casual observer—was self-deprecating to the point of self-effacement. In those days, that was an attitude to which you could aspire. She was very smart, but not depressingly intellectual. If I had a criticism of her—as I came to know her better—it was that she displayed no interest in sport. She didn’t regard this as a criticism, but more of a positive endorsement of her lifestyle and outlook. I, on the other hand, had balanced my time at school as equally as possible between work, hockey, and cricket. She was faintly amused that I might think studying on the same English course as her the best way to spend the next three years of my life.

Serendipity is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Its history is similarly unexpected. The word was coined in English by the eighteenth-century man of letters and art historian Horace Walpole, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, and best known today for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). Serendipity predates his Gothic foray by at least ten years. In 1754 he wrote a long letter to his friend, Sir Horace Mann, in the course of which he describes a fortuitous discovery he had just made linking the Capello family with the Medicis, remarking, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” He goes on to explain that he once read “a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip.’” The princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” The fairy tale was of Middle Eastern origin, and it had been translated into various European languages from the sixteenth century onwards. The word serendipity itself derives from a former name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. Walpole simply added the regular English ending -ity to create serendipity. What is surprising (to me, at least) is that the OED can’t find the adjective serendipitous until into the twentieth century. On this point the dictionary sagely but evasively notes of the earlier serendipity: “Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.”

At university, I soon gravitated towards the older periods of literature (Old English, Middle English, the Early Modern period), and Hilary naturally listed towards the relevant (the modern novel, feminist approaches to literature, even some critical theory). These were remarkable, idyllic years, set in a time capsule where what came next never really seemed to matter.

After York, we moved to Reading as postgraduates. I was following up my interest in the literature of the past by studying for a master’s in medieval studies, and Hilary was maintaining her interest in the relevant themes of the day by working towards a doctorate in English literature, focusing on D. H. Lawrence and early twentieth-century feminism. At the same time she was concerned about my future. There was no doubt that I was diligent, hard-working, and curious (intellectually), but at the same time I had not developed any ideas about how I might support myself when the one-year master’s programme reached its natural conclusion.

Work was something that had never been spoken about much when I was growing up at home. My father worked for what used to be described as the “Foreign Office,” but which was actually the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham (GCHQ, the British government’s “listening post” and Secrets Emporium), and then after that for MI6 in London. I never really knew what his job involved. You weren’t supposed to know. He certainly never discussed it, and deflected any innocent questions about what he’d got up to on any particular days you might ask. I can say with near certainty that he wasn’t a code-cracking linguist, or if he was, he covered it up pretty well. He used to say curtly that he was a data-processing manager, which, in the days before personal computing, meant very little to me. Similarly, my English degree meant very little to him, and when I graduated from university, he was fairly confident that I wouldn’t land a secure job without his help. To rectify this, he regularly sent me newspaper advertisements for jobs as junior and middle managers at car-manufacturing companies.

Fortunately for other potential employers, one afternoon in 1976 in the Common Room at the University of Reading, Hilary stumbled upon an advertisement in the Times Literary Supplement placed by the Personnel Department of Oxford University Press. The advertisement stated enigmatically that “the Editor of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary requires an Assistant to work full time in Oxford, starting not later than 1 July 1976, on the revision now in progress.”

Hilary asked whether I’d seen the ad. I hadn’t, of course.

Had I ever thought about working with words? I had certainly not considered working as a lexicographer. Most arts students at the time wanted to write the great English novel, but I was normally attracted to details and patterns rather than to the panoramic overview—and that (I assumed) meant that I wouldn’t have the necessary credentials to be a novelist. But I had spent time studying language during my master’s programme, the high point of which (for me, at least, and perhaps for the handful of people who have ever read it) involved writing a glossary of and commentary on Scandinavian words borrowed into English in the complicated Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The dissertation had required me to spend afternoons checking meanings and etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary. I was fascinated by the details and how they formed networks: how you could identify which words came from the Scandinavian languages, how they might differ in quality from the bedrock of Germanic vocabulary in English, and how this conflict produced remarkable poetry.

My work on Gawain wasn’t my first encounter with the OED: as an English Literature undergraduate I had at one point taken it into my head to investigate all of the words in John Milton’s Paradise Lost which had to do with the notion of rising and falling (as in the gulf between heaven and hell). The project involved hours of ploughing through the OED in the university library in the days when it was only available as a series of large, heavy, and tightly printed volumes. I wanted to see whether Milton’s actual uses of any of these words were innovative (i.e., if they were the first-ever examples of the terms that the OED had collected). And if so, I wanted to know if that told us anything about Milton’s creative use of language.

And so I thought that I had considerable experience of the OED by the time Hilary came across that ad. But I’d never contemplated a career as a lexicographer, even though I had spent the previous three months critiquing a historical glossary. For Hilary, coming across the ad was fortuitous; for me, it sealed my fate.

But I was hesitant about applying for the post. I was, after all, only twenty-two and had my whole life ahead of me, and didn’t need to tie myself down to what I assumed must be the dreary life of a lexicographer. On the other hand, I was confident that I wouldn’t make a good teacher, and there was little else on offer at the time for an occasional medievalist.

“Applicants should have a keen interest in lexicography and usage, and should preferably hold an honours degree (First or Second Class) in English with special qualifications in English Philology.”

I don’t want to give the impression in any way that I wasn’t interested in language at the time, but it’s just that I didn’t know that I was, or hadn’t accepted it. So—as usual—I was circumspect. This approach had always worked before as a defensive mechanism, so why shouldn’t it now? In reality, I thought that an advertisement for editors on the Oxford Dictionaries would attract so many bright Oxford graduates that an upstart from somewhere else would not stand a chance. There was something about the “special qualifications in English Philology” that disturbed me. I knew that “philology” was the study of the history of and relationship between words, but “special qualifications”? How on earth might I have set about acquiring these? Were there people who had dedicated their entire university careers to obtaining such qualifications? Wouldn’t they be much more likely to land the job than me? Why would I want to set myself up for inevitable disappointment?

The promised salary wasn’t large—in fact it was only moderate—but in comparison with a student grant it suggested undreamt-of affluence. Eventually I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I noticed that the salary was “in accordance with qualifications and experience,” which was not particularly in my favour (my experience was rock bottom), but I did have qualifications in English literature and (if things went as planned) in medieval studies. Within days I had submitted my application to the Personnel Department, Oxford University Press.

To my great surprise, an imposing letter arrived shortly afterwards inviting me to travel over to Oxford for an afternoon of interviews—in the company of the director of personnel and the mysterious denizens of the dictionary department. Suddenly, the prospect of my future employment became serious. I found that I dreaded being required to discuss my hopes and achievements with the intellectual grandees of Oxford, who—I presumed—had spent centuries raising barriers to exclude all-comers from elsewhere. It wasn’t that I lacked confidence, but that I had been schooled to hide my confidence behind a show of indifference.

Although I found the academic cloisters of Oxford intimidating, I didn’t necessarily include the Oxford dictionaries in this bracket. They were the public face of Oxford to all of us at school and university in the 1960s and 1970s. We had all used a Pocket Oxford Dictionary or one of its larger brothers and sisters as we grew up. They provided advice, but didn’t threaten. They showed you knowledge you might aspire to, without needing to cross swords with the scholars themselves. In my slight preparation for my Oxford visit I had read up about the OED and now knew something of its history.

It had all begun way back in 1857, with the Philological Society of London. The learned scholars of the society had discussed the state-of-the-art dictionaries available to educated gentlemen of the 1850s, and had found them sadly deficient. The charge was led by Richard Chenevix Trench, later archbishop of Dublin, who delivered two papers to the society decrying the fact that modern English dictionaries missed out on so many important words (old ones, scientific ones), didn’t pay enough attention to the history of the language, and generally scored only a B+ in terms of editorial effort.

The society members took up the challenge and began collecting materials for a new English dictionary which would knock all of its predecessors into a tin hat or paper bag. But it needed more than the good wishes and earnest endeavour of a London word society to bring the dictionary to life. The society was fortunate in that it managed to inveigle a Scottish schoolmaster working at Mill Hill School in north London to lead the project. He took some convincing, as also did most publishers when confronted with the project. When publishers were first approached, they mostly ran in the wrong direction—Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford. But then Oxford wavered: they could see the problem from both sides—the potential scholarly prestige, but also the risks and uncertainties of the project. They stopped running away. To cut a very long story short, by 1879 the society had found someone, in the form of the aforementioned schoolmaster, a tall Lowland Scot named James Murray, willing to accept the daunting task of editing this dictionary, and—in Oxford University Press—the ideal publisher for the worthy work.

The key idea was that the dictionary would be based on the real evidence of the language, and not just on impressions, guesswork, and the contents of previous dictionaries. It would provide a potted biography of English words, providing accurate definitions of their meanings, detailed information on word origins, and—crucially—quotations showing real, documentary examples of any word or meaning from its earliest recorded use right up to the present day (or the point at which the term vanished from the language).

To assemble material for the project, Murray perfected a new methodology. People all around the world were badgered and cajoled—by way of international appeals—to copy out useful snippets of language from literary sources, journals, newspapers, etc., on to index cards, and then to post them to the dictionary. Once sufficient documentation had been collected, by the early 1880s, Murray and his colleagues began to work their way through the alphabet, classifying and defining and ordering information. The dictionary was published in instalments, and the first instalment, all the way from A to Ant, appeared in 1884, at which point the scholarly public recognised the new dictionary as one of the wonders of the age, and eagerly began to look forward to its completion.

It was accepted that several volumes would be needed to contain this mass of information about the language, and that the project would last perhaps a decade or more. Instalments were sent to subscribers as they were published, and at first good progress was made—it all took longer than expected, but not frighteningly so. By 1903 the editors had reached the letter R, and it was hoped that the end was in sight. But they had calculated without the enormous letter S, before which even the bravest lexicographer has shivered. The letter S saw them into the First World War. The war slowed production to a trickle as staff left for military service. Momentum was hard to regain, and the final sections of the dictionary appeared in slow succession through the 1920s. The final instalment was published in 1928. The remaining editors swept some more words, newcomers to the language, into a one-volume Supplement published five years later, in 1933, and then the dictionary department was closed down and the University Press got on with the rest of its life, satisfied that it had captured the language for the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future was shorter than expected. Fortunately for me—as it turned out—in 1957 the Press decided that it needed to revive and expand the original supplement of modern words, in the interests of keeping the OED up to date. They appointed a New Zealander, Robert Burchfield, to shoulder this work as its editor. There was an illogicality about the original plan, which was to take the large, single-volume Supplement and replace it with another, larger single-volume Supplement that included the important new words and meanings of the middle years of the twentieth century. It was envisaged as an add-on to the main dictionary, done in the same editorial style and with the same editorial objectives, but treating modern accessions to the language from Britain, America, and around the world. But the one-volume Supplement of 1933 was already too big to be enlarged within the covers of a single volume, and there were interminable arguments within the University Press in the 1960s as one volume turned into two, which in turn became three, as the number of new words to be added kept growing. By 1972 the Supplement to the OED, as it was known, had published only one of its eventual four volumes, and much work would be needed to bring it to completion. At the same time, other, smaller Oxford dictionaries were creating a secondary stream of incessant work for editors. And so it came about that in 1976—in order to speed up editorial production on all fronts—the masters of the University Press were advertising for a new editor to help the next edition of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary see the light of day.

There were problems with contemplating work on the OED: by the 1970s, any arts student or academic knew that it was something of an antiquated juggernaut—the home of old-world scholarship. It was the smaller Oxford dictionaries that people loved and respected most. The University Press had published a Concise Oxford in 1911, edited by the Fowler brothers and derived in part from the ongoing OED, well before the first edition of the big one had been completed (so how could it truly be concise?). The Concise Oxford had been the foundation stone of a generation of spin-off dictionaries, including the Pocket (bigger than the average pocket), the Little (okay, that was little), and later, when everything had to be offered in miniature, a Mini. In the mix, too, was the large, two-volume, and enticingly named Shorter, which every self-respecting student had been given by their doting parents on their eighteenth birthday.

The first records in English of the word juggernaut date from the early years of the seventeenth century. It goes without saying that not everybody knew about the word then, but those who were alert to language change did. This was a time when the British Empire was expanding. Britons were travelling and trading far away from London, and they were bringing strange words back from their journeys, many of which eventually found a place in the English language.

Early travellers to the Indian Subcontinent were amazed by the enormous processions they witnessed at Puri in Odhisa, on the Bay of Bengal. An idol of Lord Vishnu was led through the city on an enormous “car” (a ramshackle vehicle maybe four storeys high, according to one account), followed by thousands of adherents. This great crush of people made the procession a potentially dangerous event, at which over the years many people were said to have met their death. Stories like this were lapped up by the travellers and their subsequent readers.

European visitors came to hear of this “Jagannath” festival: they adapted the spelling to the way they heard the word pronounced in India (the OED explains our spelling of the first vowel by saying that the short a in Hindi is pronounced like the English u in cut, mutt, etc.). What they may not have known was that “Jagannath” (lord of the world) was a Hindi name for the Lord Vishnu. Travellers used the word as if it applied specifically to the glorious car (or “Juggernaut”) on which the idol of Lord Vishnu was carried. By the early nineteenth century we were happily using the word of any large cart—and later lorry or truck—that rumbled along our road systems.

The cabinet of Oxford’s lexicographical delights was completed by the Compact—the two-volume version of the big dictionary sold with a magnifying glass! What a fantastic idea that was. The whole dictionary had originally been published in this format in 1971, with nine pages to a compact page. You wouldn’t think it would be popular, but it certainly was—especially amongst people who loved the idea that they were still sharp-eyed enough to read the tiny print without the need for the magnifying glass. It had found its way on to the shelves of many English academics in the early 1970s, especially through rock-bottom book offers in the Sunday newspaper supplements. In retrospect, this was old technology used to revivify old text: but there weren’t any other options at the time. The little Oxford dictionaries were being updated rapidly, and the bigger ones were being updated at longer intervals. The Compact was eventually just provided with a stronger magnifying glass. And sadly, this meant that the big, multi-volume OED was not being properly updated at all, but was just being given a big add-on addendum (its “supplement”), because it was too much of a task to update it properly all the way from A to Z.

My interview at the dictionary was in June, at the beginning of the long hot summer of 1976, and Hilary and I took the train up from the earnest red brick of Reading to the medieval grandeur of Oxford to see if I could be settled into steady employment and the salary-earning classes. We arrived at the railway station and made our way to the Oxford University Press offices in Walton Street—to what I later came to regard as the epicentre of dictionary-making in the Western world. From here I was on my own. Hilary decided to look around the local shops, confidently but naively expecting me to reappear—elated or dejected—about thirty minutes later.

You and I would think epicentre was a good classical word, maybe arising in English around 1660, with the birth of the new, empirical sciences and the Renaissance affection for ancient words. But it’s not; we know it entered into the English language considerably later than that (1880). Scientists typically reach for classical words—or just broken twigs of classical words—when creating a new term, in a tradition of pan-European scientific enquiry that reaches up to the present day. The immediate predecessor of epicentre in English was epicentrum (1874), used in the same sense (“the point above the centre,” especially in seismology). Maybe epicentrum looks barbaric to us, but that’s the word the German scientist Karl von Seebach invented in 1873, in German but from Greek elements, for his new word in the new science of seismology (itself from Greek elements: the study of earthquakes). We just made the new word look English, by changing epicentrum to epicentre. Try not to make assumptions about the origin and usage of words; there may be more of a story to it, especially when it is in the hands of white-coated scientists.

The front of the Oxford University Press was imposing, especially to someone whose only experience of Oxford until then derived from regular trips over the county border from where I lived in Gloucestershire, as part of a school sports team. The massive black wrought-iron gates set between thick stone columns were designed to exclude and yet—by offering a passing glimpse on to a college-style lawn and quadrangle, with a towering copper beech tree leaning over an idle pond—to incite wonder and fascination. The building itself looked classically eighteenth century, as was intended when it was built in the early nineteenth century to house under one collective roof the University Press’s editorial staff and print workers, who were previously scattered elsewhere in Oxford. I was, needless to say, suitably impressed.

The University Press porter let me into the grand quadrangle, or “quad.” Before I had a chance to reach the sumptuous lawn, I was directed off to one side—you didn’t get to experience the full splendour of the place unless you deserved it—where I found the Personnel Department and my recent correspondent, the Colonel.

The Colonel was the human face of the Personnel Department at OUP in those days: he was a delightful military chap—“(ret’d)” of course—and something of a leftover from the days when old soldiers ruled Personnel. He was almost certainly modelled closely on the character actor Wilfrid Hyde-White, Colonel Pickering of My Fair Lady: quite short, dapper, balding, chatty, and charmingly military in tenor. We shook hands, and then he sank into his seat behind a substantial desk while I was directed towards an easy chair designed principally to make you feel that you weren’t the most important person in the room. We talked about the magnificent history of the University Press, as seen through the eyes of the Personnel Department, and we wondered jointly how easy I might find it moving from Reading to Oxford, should I be fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity. The distance between the two places is about twenty-five miles, but I discovered much later that there were people in Oxford who thought civilisation ended just a few hundred feet outside the old city walls, where the barbarian hordes were dug in for the foreseeable future. Others are said to believe that “the sun rises over Wadham [College] and sets over Worcester.” Worcester College, that is: there wouldn’t be much point in referring to the City of Worcester here.

Once we had exhausted all possible areas of conversation, he took me on a little walk round to the dictionary department. In those days most of the University Press operated out of a single large block of buildings tucked away amongst the terraces of Jericho—an area of Oxford by the canal, made famous as Beersheba in Jude the Obscure. The dictionary occupied two small terraced houses, No. 40 and No. 41 Walton Crescent, on the edge of the main site. Its offices were very close to the centre of the University Press’s publishing control rooms, and so the Colonel and I did not have far to walk. I was taken through the corridor-snaking interior of the University Press and debouched at No. 40 Walton Crescent.

According to its entry in the OED, the verb to debouch


  • "Compellingly captures words in all their weirdness and wonder.... The book becomes a moving celebration both of language and of a love that transcends it."—Observer (UK)
  • "Delightful...a fitting companion to Elisabeth Murray's Caught in the Web of Words and Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman."—Providence Journal
  • "Well, I doubt there has ever been a better account of how a person with a capacious brain sits down with a cup of tea and a pile of cards and sets about creating authoritative definitions."—Lynne Truss, New York Times
  • New York Times' Paperback Row
    "A former chief editor of the dictionary, Simpson reflects on nearly four decades as a gatekeeper of the English language. Along the way, he offers insight into how words come into being and a look at origins of a scattering of words: inkling, deadline, apprenticeship, balderdash."
  • "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
  • "Although Simpson reports in detail on the practical, finicky business of augmenting and improving the OED, the human condition is always in view.... A sustained and sincere reflection on what it means to make a dictionary--the toil, the puzzles, the costs and the profits."—Henry Hitchings, Guardian (UK)
  • "The book is compulsively readable, especially about the work of the dictionary compiler and the qualifications, or rather the skills, required to become one. I could quote reams of Simpson's well-wrought prose."—Oxford Times
  • "The best book yet to reveal what a lifetime spent with words is really like."—Erin McKean, 20x20

On Sale
Oct 17, 2017
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

John Simpson

About the Author

John Simpson is the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he helped digitize the dictionary. He lives in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom.

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