"The circle of the English language has a well- defined centre, but no discernible circumference." So wrote James Murray in his introduction to the gargantuan, multi-volume reference work that took all of 70 years to produce: the "Oxford English Dictionary."
All living languages are subject to change - English, rather more so than most. From the Anglo-Saxon Old English of "Beowulf" to the more Frenchified Middle English of Chaucer to the Modern English that was already expanding exponentially in Elizabethan times, the language has blithely coined new words at a rate that is truly exciting - and sometimes a little alarming. But until the 18th century, when Samuel Johnson took it upon himself to compile his famous "Dictionary," English-speaking people did not have the benefit of so handy a reference book to help them find their way through the jungle of strange new words, let alone a reliable guide to the precise meaning or meanings of older, more familiar ones.
Although a marvel of erudition, application, and common sense, Dr. Johnson's "Dictionary" was far from perfect. It didn't even pretend to list every word in the language, and quite a few of the definitions it offered were inexact or facetious - such as his famous definition of oats as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people." But his general approach - empirical and inductive - was the one that would prevail in future English dictionaries.
"The approach that Johnson took," Simon Winchester explains in "The Meaning of Everything," "was not to decide for himself what words meant, not ... to prescribe how they should be used - but instead to let the printed record of centuries-worth of writing and literature illustrate how words had actually been used in the past, and tease from the record the variety of historic meanings."
But it was only in the 19th century, that age of stupendously ambitious and doggedly pursued undertakings, that the project of compiling a complete and thoroughly reliable dictionary of the English language was conceived and embarked upon. And, although there were several distinguished, dedicated men who helped get the project under way (a fascinating set of characters, whom Winchester sketches with infectious enthusiasm), the man who eventually became the guiding spirit, diligent overseer, and prodigious workhorse of the great enterprise was James Murray, a Scotsman who had been forced to leave school at age 14 because his family could not afford to continue his education!
Winchester describes the amazing process by which the dictionary's editors solicited help from ordinary readers all over the world, who were invited to note down examples of word usage from the entire realm of English literature, from the distant past to the present. It was, in this sense, a genuinely democratic enterprise.
The quotations illustrating how specific words were used were to be set down on slips of paper and sent in to the editors. Even before the editors got around to working on the definitions, the sheer number of slips that were accumulating had become a veritable sea of paper, increasingly difficult to store.
Indeed, as the project got underway, it soon became clear that the dictionary was going to take a lot longer to complete than the 10 years originally anticipated. (It wasn't actually finished until 1928!) And it was going to cost a lot more for Oxford to publish. There were also personality clashes that threatened to derail the project - as well as many unsung heroes whose praise is sung here: peacemakers who intervened to soothe ruffled feathers, persuasive voices in the world of journalism who championed the project, printers who labored over pages filled with more corrections per line than any other book ever seen, and of course the hundreds upon hundreds of individuals who sent in those slips of paper.
Winchester tells the story with great verve in an easygoing, anecdotal style that is delectably readable. This book should certainly appeal to readers who enjoyed his earlier foray behind the scenes of dictionarymaking, "The Professor and the Madman" (1998), which zeroed in on the personalities of Murray and one of the strangest and most assiduous of the volunteers who sent in slips: a mentally disturbed American who had killed someone and was now confined to a lunatic asylum.
Colorful as this undoubtedly is, Winchester also has a knack for making the less sensationalistic elements of lexicography just as engrossing, whether he's describing what to look for in a good definition, discussing the tedious but essential labors of the copy editor, or explaining why Murray and his team found that words beginning with the letter B were much more difficult to define than words beginning with A.
• Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.
A new edition of "Samuel Johhnson's Dictionary," edited by Jack Lynch, has been published this month by Walker & Co. (646 pp., $39.95).