Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Our man at the Oxford English Dictionary enjoys the last word
The Third Edition is some 18 years behind schedule, but then one doesn’t like to rush these things, says the outgoing chief editor
'Lots of people we correspond with are quite obsessive,’ says John Simpson, who has worked on the OED since 1976 Photo: Andrew Crowley
John Simpson is a fairly normal human being who shaves in the morning, doesn’t wear a black velvet four-cornered cap and can use snappy sentences to get his point across. He doesn’t expect people to genuflect in his presence. It’s as well to establish this because Simpson himself – departing chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary – has failed to douse the expectation that he is some kind of austere patriarch with a long white beard, like his Victorian predecessor, Sir James Murray.
“Some people are dumbfounded when they meet me,” he says. “They know the chief editor of the OED in the past was a very prominent figure. What should they say? What do they do? Do they bow or something? It’s very strange. They usually get over it when they see I haven’t got flames coming out of my ears.”
Yet the awe his position inspires is not really so very weird. The OED is the most exacting and authoritative living document of the English language ever devised. It runs to 20 monumental volumes, defines more than half a million words and is in a state of perpetual revision.
During his 37-year tenure, Simpson has not only initiated the biggest overhaul of the dictionary (the Third Edition or OED3) for 100 years, but taken the whole mind-blowing endeavour – “the lingua franca of the civilised modern world” – on to the web.
Today, the OED is not just a hefty collection of reference books but a dynamic online resource that tells the story of human history through the words we use. Simpson has masterminded that revolution. “Maybe it’s time to see what happens outside the windows,” he muses of his impending retirement. More