Full details

  • Hardcover
  • $27.99 / $36.50 CAN
  • ISBN 13: 9780465060696

Wall Street Journal
“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…”

“A sustained and sincere reflection on what it means to make a dictionary – the toil, the puzzles, the costs and the profits.”

New York Times Book Review
“A charmingly full, frank and humorous account of a career dedicated to rigorous lexicographic rectitude…It is astonishing that anyone could have done this taxing job, without a break, for over 35 years.... [Simpson] is an absolute hero.”

New Criterion
“The excitement of lexicography is of a different kind, and the book does a splendid job conveying it. Cleverly, throughout, he has scattered definitions of words marked in bold that have some relevance for his story and in the process provides mini-lessons on how English has developed through the ages.”

Literary Review
“An irresistibly wry account of the OED's last forty years.”

Language Hat
“[Simpson] is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.”

Booklist, starred review
“Simpson's memoir features entertaining, culturally revealing stories of many curious words, phrases, and roots.... Although scholars and librarians will be particularly interested in the OED history, all readers can enjoy Simpson's sincere and lively memoir.”

Publishers Weekly
“Simpson gracefully weaves into his memoir little definitions of words, providing examples of the work of a lexicographer.... Simpson's vibrant and inspiring memoir gives us a glimpse into life as detective in the realm of words.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Simpson makes his literary debut with a delightful chronicle of his 40-year career among fellow lexicographers as the dictionary went through the long, painstaking processes of updating, revising, and digitizing its gargantuan number of entries. Unassuming, sly, and often very funny.... A captivating celebration of a life among words.”

Roanoke Times
“This easily read and enjoyable memoir could be a chapbook for employees and volunteers who want to accomplish the new in the face of opposition by the guardians of the old.”

Baltimore Sun, word blog You Don't Say
“A genial memoir.”

Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner's Modern English Usage and chief editor of Black's Law Dictionary
“John Simpson has written a humane, poignant, wry account of his years at work on the Oxford English Dictionary. Word-lovers will relish it.”

Frank Delaney, novelist and broadcaster
“Can delight be ‘sheer'? Can enjoyment be ‘rich'? The Oxford English Dictionary on my shelves (very proud possession) sighs now and then as though looking for worthy company. It need be wistful no more. John Simpson, whose distinguished work came to inform those twenty volumes when he was chief editor, has written one of the loveliest, most engaging, most informing, humorously dry, and alluring companion books ever to serve the English language. When my envy has come under control I shall buy—for my nightstand—a second copy of The Word Detective. And yes, it is full of ‘sheer' delight and ‘rich' enjoyment.”

“[Simpson] writes with easeful grace, employing a humorous and conversational tone saturated with characteristically British self-awareness. Additionally, Simpson packs his narration with explanatory asides and parenthetical insertions, and renders his memories with lighthearted charm… Simpson's recollections sparkle with immediacy and relatability. Unlike the executives at the Press or the Oxford dons with frightening credentials, Simpson retains his everyman sensibilities, and keeps the focus of the Dictionary and his memoir on what really matters: the words… Those sympathetic to the OED's cause, as well as Simpson's reviled ‘lovers of words', will also find his divagations into the English language entertaining and stimulating.”

Steven Pinker, and author of The Language Instinct and The Sense of Style
“People think of dictionaries as oracles that channel eternal verities about The Language. In fact they are the handiwork of mortals who deliberate about how to make sense of the creative brainchildren and viral fads of hundreds of millions of wordsmiths. The Word Detective is a delightful and revealing look at the human side of dictionaries, with insights galore about the nature of language. (And why does the adjective galore come after the noun?)”

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials
"I enjoyed this book immensely. John Simpson is an engaging narrator, and the story he tells is full of interest for anyone who has a fascination for words, their origins, their meanings, the way we use them. The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the great wonders of the world, and to have the story of how the great vessel that was launched in the nineteenth century was brought up to date and set sailing confidently on the digital seas of the twenty-first told by its chief editor is a great treat. The narrative is interspersed with mini essays on words that have caught Simpson's attention: they show very vividly the sort of close knowledge and affectionate curiosity that make the great dictionary far more than just another reference book."

Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
“There is a poignant and unanticipated counterpoint to John Simpson's fine memoir of his time at the OED—for while his majestic dictionary was during his tenure undergoing changes of the profoundest kind, he and his family were dealing with a personal challenge that places all his lexicographic achievements in the most human of contexts. This is a wonderful book, then—but on two levels, both equally revealing, intimate and true.”

David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
“A perfect title. According to the OED, a Sherlock is someone 'who investigates mysteries or shows great perceptiveness'. This aptly summarizes Sherlock Simpson, who tells the inside story of how that great dictionary has come to be written, illustrated by illuminating and sometimes daring word histories, and grounded in an engaging and moving autobiography. Anyone fascinated by words and their history will love this informative and revealing memoir. We don't normally associate dictionaries with drama. This will change your mind.”

Erin McKean, founder, Wordnik.com
“John Simpson's Word Detective is a warm, wry, and thoroughly engrossing memoir of what a life in lexicography truly entails, with plenty of time to stop and look at some of the words he's encountered along the way.”

Donald Knuth, Stanford University
blurb (bl?:b), v. intr. slang (orig. U.S.). To commend a newly published book.
blurber (bl?:b?(r)), sb. [See prec.] One who blurbs.

The Word Detective

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

By (author) John Simpson

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.

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

Also By (author) John Simpson




Hachette Book Group