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Working in words

25 November 2016

Don Manley considers recollections of an Oxford dictionary man


The Word Detective: A life in words: From serendipity to selfie
John Simpson
Little, Brown £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10



AFTER my 50th-birthday party, my mother-in-law commented on the man of few words sitting beside her, but she did not know she had been talking to the Oxford English Dictionary’s chief editor, John Simpson. Nor did she know that Simpson, sadly and ironically, had a severely disabled daughter with no words whatever.

The core of this beautifully written autobiography covers the period between 1976, when the author went to work at Oxford University Press, and 2013, when he retired. On the way, we see him becoming a lexicographer by acci­dent, playing hockey immedi­ately after his wedding, coming to terms with the quirkiness of Oxford, and finding in his family life a situation that tested him to the limit.

Simpson’s contribution to the OED was huge (and not just in terms of the number of words that passed his desk). Early on, he appreciated that he and his colleagues had to cast their nets much wider to trawl the words of a fast-moving language, and he was also quick to seize the opportunities that computerisation and online publishing had to offer.

His observations of colleagues are often wickedly amusing, and he spices up the book with interludes about specific words he has used in his narrative. This is a fascinating personal story, but also a well-observed story of social change, reflected in the way we work and the way we use our language.


Don Manley is the Church Times crossword editor. He worked in the education division of OUP.

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