European Diary

People of the Book

Sometimes one opens the morning newspaper and, instead of fires, floods, or declarations of war, finds a parable.  This one hit me with the force of a subway train back in January, and I duly rushed it off as a post on the Chronicles blog, but stubbornly the retina refused to let go of the killer image it had captured.  I felt I needed to see that parable on paper, which is why it now appears as a column.

A Syrian girl I used to be friends with in England once presented me with a magnificently bound copy of the Koran, though her gift, she insisted, was being given on the condition that “the Book” should be given a place of honor on my bookshelf.  It had to stand above “Tolstoy and other light literature,” as she put it.  What to do?  Even Shakespeare, in her uncompromising view, was in the end only frivolous reading.  “Darling,” I said, “there is only one solution.  I will put it next to my Oxford English Dictionary.”

Begun in 1879 under the auspices of the University of Oxford and published in 1928 by Oxford University Press, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now better known as the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of the greatest events in the history of Western civilization.  What is not widely remembered is that the lexicographer Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, who undertook the project at the...

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