The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Hardcover)

Staff Pick Badge
The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary Cover Image
Special Order

Staff Reviews

I have finally met my match in word-nerdery. And after you read Simpson's book, you'll be one of us too...
"Reading the dictionary" is usually an expression for tedium, but consider that David Bowie once called the Oxford English Dictionary "a really really long poem about everything." Former OED Editor-in-Chief John Simpson shares his same fascination with the most famous English-language reference, tracing the evolution of the dictionary from print to online, his personal life during his time on staff, and even the surprising trajectory of a few word entries.

— Katelynne Shimkus


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.

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.

Praise For…

Providence Journal:
"Delightful...a fitting companion to Elisabeth Murray's Caught in the Web of Words and Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman...Simpson peppers the text of his book with page-long etymologies for everything from 'inkling' to 'balderdash' to 'selfie,' and with affecting touches of his personal and family history, all of which deepen and humanize this fascinating paean to lexicography."

Product Details
ISBN: 9780465060696
ISBN-10: 0465060692
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication Date: October 25th, 2016
Pages: 384
Language: English