The Word Detective: A Life in Words; From Serendipity to Selfie – review

Lexicographer John Simpson weaves etymology with personal history in a compelling tribute to the wonder of language

How do words come into being? Why do some mutate in meaning while others vanish? How do they gain and lose taboo status? Alongside fascinating histories, John Simpson here chronicles his 40-year career as a lexicographer and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary during its digitisation. Despite an occasionally verbose style, he compellingly captures words in all their weirdness and wonder.

“Language continually changes and every change is a puzzle. The lexicographer is the historical word detective trying to identify and explain these puzzles,” he writes, shrewdly navigating the intersection of language and culture, how we shape words and how words shape us. A poignant personal story is interwoven, of discovering that his daughter, Ellie, has a disability that leaves her “languageless”, yet capable of a communication that is “wordless, but powerful”. The book becomes a moving celebration both of language and of a love that transcends it.

The Word Detective: A Life in Words from Serendipity to Selfie is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). Click here to buy it for £15.57


Anita Sethi

The GuardianTramp

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