The Word Detective

2016-10-13-09-59-45The Word Detective (US cover)

My account of my time at the OED was published in 2016 by Little, Brown in the UK and by Basic Books in the US.

A Chinese translation was published in 2020.

Click here to see Lara Heimert (Publisher at Basic Books and my US editor) talking about it.

  • To order a copy of the UK edition, click here.
  • To order a copy of the US edition, click here.

Reviews and articles

UK edition

  • The Guardian: “A sustained and sincere reflection on what it means to make a dictionary – the toil, the puzzles, the costs and the profits … although Simpson reports in detail on the practical, finicky business of augmenting and improving the OED, the human condition is always in view.” (Henry Hitchings)
  • The Observer: “John Simpson here chronicles his 40-year career as a lexicographer and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary during its digitisation … shrewdly navigating the intersection of language and culture.”
  • Daily Mail: “This elegantly crafted volume will surely provide greater entertainment than a few more famous memoirists this autumn.” (Marcus Berkmann)
  • The Irish Times: “Language continually changes, every change is a puzzle and the lexicographer is a word detective trying to explain these puzzles. Simpson does this with great skill … “
  • Oxford Times: “The book is compulsively readable, especially about the work of the dictionary compiler and the qualifications, or rather the skills, required to become one. I could quote reams of Simpson’s well-wrought prose … “
  • Oxford Times Limited Edition: “As the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Simpson spent his working life with words, but his profoundly disabled daughter has taught him a valuable lesson – that human beings have many ways of communicating.”
  • The Irish News: “Writing an autobiography about spending 37 years with one company is a tall order …but John Simpson, former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, pulls it off with panache.”
  • ABC News: “Simpson argues that it is the historical principles of the OED make it valuable in an age of information overload … in an age of fake news, that information is crucial.”
  • The Irish Examiner: “Simpson held his senior editing post at the OED for 20 years until 2013, having joined the prestigious institute in the hot, sticky summer of 1976. He says the arrival of the computer heralded the biggest shift during his career, as it transformed the ability to research words and edit more efficiently online.”
  • Pretoria News: “Anyone interested in language will enjoy and profit from this disarmingly modest story of the life and work of a meticulous and highly competent word detective.”
  • Australian Book Review (subscription only): “There has never been a book that so successfully demonstrates the labours and joys of dictionary making.” (Bruce Moore)
  • Literary Review (subscription only): “The Word Detective is both Simpson’s memoir and the story of the dictionary … an irresistibly wry account of the OED‘s last forty years.” (Christopher Howse)
  • Church Times (subscription only): “This is a fascinating personal story, but also a well-observed story of social change, reflected in the way we work and the way we use our language.” (Don Manley)

US edition

  • The New York Times: ““The Word Detective” is a charmingly full, frank and humorous account of a career dedicated to rigorous lexicographic rectitude … I doubt there has ever been a better account of how a person with a capacious brain sits down with a cup of tea and a pile of cards and sets about creating authoritative definitions.” (Lynne Truss)
  • The Wall Street Journal: “The memoir of a lexicographer doesn’t sound like an enticing prospect … but Mr. Simpson pulls it off … an engaging memoir.”
  • The Washington Times: “A book about words and dictionaries, about our times and how they’re reflected in the words we write and speak, and above all about a life well lived.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: A witty memoir from a dictionary editor who insists he is not a ‘word lover.’ Unassuming, sly, and often very funny. A captivating celebration of a life among words.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “This is just the sort of memoir you’d imagine from the hands of someone who’s spent his life chasing down the peculiar history of words and writing clear and careful definitions of them and their origins: precise and thorough.”
  • The Washington Book Review: “a very enjoyable biography in which John Simpson shares the life of a lexicographer.”
  • Proverbium: “Simpson is indeed a lexicographical hero … [He] never rested on his laurels and has remained a humble and unassuming yet progressive world-class lexicographer … The English language owes the world to this sharp guy, who as a lexicographer thought innovatively outside the box.”  (Wolfgang Mieder)
  • The New York Times (review of paperback edition): “Simpson reflects on nearly four decades as a gatekeeper of the English language.”
  • Dallas News: “Packed with the kind of word-lore that keeps readers and writers up late at night: Where do our words come from? How and why do their meanings change year to year, century to century?”
  • The Weekly Standard: “Simpson is … a very pleasant and smiling guide to the world of historical lexicography.”
  • Mashed Radish: “Once I started this memoir, chronicling John Simpson’s career at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) … I couldn’t put it down … He’s incredibly erudite, but that never gets in the way of lucid, and often wry, writing.”
  • Shelf Awareness: “Simpson, writing with a wry and often self-deprecating wit and an obvious passion for his subject, tells a story that is at once deeply personal and part of the larger story of a fundamental shift in how we share information.”
  • Visual Thesaurus: “Because of the unique insights into the most important and impressive dictionary in English, this is a book any word lover should enjoy … Simpson shatters many illusions about lexicographers, but he reinforces one: that folks absorbed in the investigation of words would have a dry wit.”
  • Public Books: “Simpson’s engaging memoir of his 37 years at the OED describes a period of unprecedented change.”
  • Languagehat: “The author is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.”
  • The Christian Century: “Simpson’s imagined interviews with famous intellectuals for the position of lexicographer are so funny that when I read them I laughed out loud on the train … “
  • Providence Journal: “The OED underwent … changes reflecting cultural, social, and linguistic transformations, all brilliantly spelled out for us by Simpson in a relaxed and even chipper prose … a fascinating paean to lexicography.”
  • The Virginian Pilot: “The author’s unfailing discipline, clarity and candor make “The Word Detective” a reference not only for scholars but also for anyone who loves to read. It’s nothing short of magnificent.”
  • The Roanoke Times: “The story chronicles the many changes and challenges faced by the OED staff, ending with an ongoing enterprise replacing the cumbersome multivolume dictionary. Simpson was the commanding officer that brought the OED to the internet.”
  • The Hillsdale Collegian: “Simpson is a genial, expert (and drily British) guide through the English language.”
  • Knoxville News Sentinel: “There have been hundreds of books written about the forming of the OED and even more about word-origins, but I promise, if you are a Scrabble player, an avid reader, a person intrigued by the power of language, a curious historian or any kind of linguist — this is a book for you.”
  • The Winnipeg Free Press: “The tension embedded into the transition to the digital era is enough reason to pick up this memoir, but for lovers of words and the development of the English language, The Word Detective in its entirety is a must-read.”
  • The Mining Journal (Marquette, Michigan): “Simpson, former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, makes a literary debut with a delightful chronicle of a 40-year career among fellow lexicographers as the dictionary went through the long, painstaking process of updating, revising, and digitizing its gargantuan number of entries.”
  • PopMatters: “He writes with easeful grace, employing a humorous and conversational tone saturated with characteristically British self-awareness … Simpson retains his everyman sensibilities.”
  • JMWW: “Personal and engaging stories that not only entertain readers but cleverly inform them, as well.”
  • Booklist (subscription only): “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.”
  • The New Criterion (subscription only): “According to Simpson, [an aspiring lexicographer] should combine a scientist’s skepticism with a writer’s sense of elegance; he compares the pleasure in crafting a nice tight entry to that of writing a poem.” (Henrik Bering)

Reader reviews/blogs

  • “If you’re into WORDS and all things OED (Oxford English Dictionary) – because who isn’t? – then this is an enjoyable read.  And the dude is all together willing to make fun of himself in an entirely British sort of way.  And I like that.” (The Erudite Lit-ite)
  • “This book helped to put a human face on the OED, the most powerful tool for understanding our language.” (Mike Johnston, Purdue University College of Liberal Arts)
  • “A chatty and fascinating memoir by John Simpson, former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary … filled with useful and amazing facts about the usage and origins of English words.” (Jon Carroll Prose)
  • “Was impressed by this lexicographical memoir by former OED editor John Simpson.” (David Skinner)
  • “La particularité de The Word Detective est de faire entrer le lecteur dans le quotidien de ceux qui créent et développent le célèbre dictionnaire.”(Joëlle Vuille, Le mot juste en anglais)
  • “Splendid, splendid; highly recommended.” (Greg, Goodreads)
  • “This is by far the nerdiest book I have ever read but I absolutely adored it.” (Audra, Goodreads)
  • “This is an utterly charming book about lexicography and oh so English.” (Alexander, Goodreads)
  • “By far the best book I’ve read this year. Entertaining, enlightening and, in parts, funny enough to laugh out loud.” (Emg, Goodreads)
  • “The editor of the OED who brought it into the internet age. How can you not like his memoir? And he throws a bunch of words in and gives you a sense of how one goes about editing. Nicely done.” (Mike Horne, Goodreads)
  • “Now I just want to go back in time and work at the OED … in 1985.”(Ms Yingling, Goodreads)
  • “I guess I’m a bit of a nerd, but I loved this book and the snippets of words that we are given a history of.” (Stacey, Goodreads)

Click to see other reader reviews on Goodreads

  • “I was entranced by this personal chronicle of the writer’s pathway to the top spot at the OED.” (Ardelle Cowie, Amazon)
  • “Brilliant! I loved reading about the life of this great lexicographer, learning that he not only wrestled with words but also with a personal situation.” (Barbara, Amazon)
  • “This was so unexpectedly fascinating.” (Lillian Irvin, Amazon)

Click to see other reader reviews on Amazon