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.