Sunday, August 05, 2007

Murray doesn't nod

I recently finished The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester and quite enjoyed it. The story and characters are wonderfully quirky and heroic. Winchester does go slightly hyperbolic in his praise, especially of the English language and the English people of the time. And he has the odd habit of using an interesting or unusual word or turn of phrase and then recycling it a few chapters later, but this doesn't detract much from the enjoyment.

What did annoy somewhat is the unneeded sic on p. 200. There is a quote from a letter that James Murry wrote to Dr. William Chester Minor, one of the most significant volunteer contributors to the OED and a man with serious psychological problems which propelled him to murder.
"The supreme position ... is certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sine in no less [sic] than 12,000 quots."

Winchester includes the footnote "Even Home nods". The suggestion is that Murry should have used fewer rather than less. Obviously, Winchester didn't check the words in the OED. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage,

"the OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great -- he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin -- more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language."

4 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ah, but Alfred et al. have all been WRONG! WRONG WRONG WRONG! Grammar Girl and Strunk and White say so. Robert Baker may have made up the rule, but he was RIGHT!

I mean, wasn't he? Wasn't he ...?

alienvoord said...

I had exactly the same issues with the book as you did! Altho on the whole it was very enjoyable.

Vance said...

Perhaps the [sic] is misplaced, and should have referred to the word "sine" a little earlier.

Brett said...

Woops! I think that I introduced that. I expect it should be "sent" though I've now given the book to my brother and can't check.