Friday, October 19, 2007

Highlights from 'The Meaning of Everything'

I'm reading a book right now called 'The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary' by Simon Winchester. And although I am not giving it as much attention as it deserves and am only a third of the way through, this is already one of my favorite books. I'll read it whilst on break at work and laugh aloud. The author's sense of humor is subtle, deadpan, and very, very funny. When one is laughing out loud at a book about a dictionary, you know it's good.

So I bring you some amsuing highlights, surely with more to come. My thoughts are after the quotes, in italics.


"But these trifling domestic disturbances aside, about the most surprising news of that June morning . . . " The 'trifling domestic disturbances' he's referring to are 1) a slightly cloudy sky, 2) an outbreak of smallpox that was threatening to spread, 3) a gypsy woman evading taxing on her goods, and 4) a murder-suicide via the slitting of throats in Hyde Park.

"Incidentally, the earliest print of the play [King Lear] spells accomodation with a single 'm', the bane of many a bee." Bee, as in spelling. Well, anyway, I thought it was funny.

"[Dean Trench, soon to be Archbishop of Dublin] was a brilliantly polymathic figure. He was also lame after breaking both knees - not through an excess of piety, but from stumbling down the gangplank of the Kingstown Packet."

"And was there not in addition something muscularly Christian about the language that was spoken? (Dean Trench was quite certain that there was.)" I thought David in particular would be amused by the phrase 'muscularly Christian.'

"Of fairy-tale fame - Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote sinister children stories as well as dictionaries."

"Richard Chenevix Trench came from a distinguished Irish clerical family . . . The distinction only slightly dimmed over time: one descendant went on to become Provost of Eton, another (known to me) the manager of an oyster bar in Hong Kong."

"The previous Dean had been William Buckland, later to be the first professor of geology at Oxford, and an insanely eager palaeontologist. Buckland was notorious also for trying to eat specimens of every living thing, in his later years declaring mole to be the nastiest, followed by bluebottle."

"He was inordinately fond of the ladies; and in his middle years he liked to recruit pretty waitresses from the Aerated Bread Company's teashop in Hammersmith with a view to teaching them the delights of his chosen sport [sculling, or boat-racing]. There are sepia photographs of him grinning impishly, surrounded by a group of very well-proportioned (and evidently rather cold) shopgirls in their close-fitting sculling tops, and others of him speeding along the river, a pretty girl behind him, with his long white beard flowing in the wind, the two of them a picture of goatish contentment."

"[Arthur Munby, poet] was powerfully attracted to rough, strong, dirty women, and he married his own servant, Hannah Cullick, delighting in her covering herself with dirt and soot as, perfectly willingly, she cleaned the household chimneys entirely naked. Much of his poetry extols the virtues of manual labour and working women."

"And if all this were not enough diversion, Furnivall also managed to get himself involved in a series of the most dreadful spats and arguments . . . The most celebrated of these fights was with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. It all began in 1876 with a technical dispute over the metre of lines in a play, Henry VIII . . . Swinburne called Furnivall 'the most bellicose bantam cock that ever defied creation'; Furnivall countered by accusing the poet of having 'the ear of a poetaster, hairy, thick and dull', and played with the origins of his name, restyling him as 'Pigsbrook'. Swinburne in turn looked up the origins of Furnivall's name, and rendered it into 'Brothel-dyke' . . . this undignified feud lasted for six miserable and exhausting years (great fun for all spectators, of course)."


I'm definitely interested in picking up some of Simon Winchester's other books, of which there are many. One that sounds particularly intriguing is 'Hong Kong - Here Be Dragons.'

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