An Expert’s Opinion on The Meaning of Everything


Lyssa Henry

What would the world be like if nobody understood each other? If no two people spoke the same language, how would anyone get along? These are problems that do not come up in our world today, but there was a time that a (less extreme, I admit) problem like this was very close to occurring. Not necessarily in speaking, but in writing, people did not use the same words or the same spellings of words. Printed works were confusing! People used their own judgements to determine the way any given word would be spelled. It was, at least in comparison with my personal standards for spelling, chaos.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been one of the best resources English speakers have been able to use for a unified language since its creation. Other dictionaries were made before and others were made after, but the OED has been the best. The most comprehensive. The most reliable. In his book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester said, “Jonathan Swift mounted a lifelong attempt to ‘fix our language forever’—no critic and advocate of immutability has ever once managed properly or even marginally to outwit the English language’s capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.” James Murray, head editor of the OED, spent years finding every word used in every book everywhere English is spoken and putting together an accurate and concise definition for each, followed by an index of when and where each word was used in an effort to help keep track of our constantly changing and expanding language. He did this with hundreds of thousands of words, and put them together in one collection of volumes: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Why is it so important, though, that everyone knows how to spell? As long as the point gets across, there is no harm done when someone spells a word wrong. This is an argument that I have heard several times and I hate to break it to those people (not really), but there are valid reasons that it is good to have a set way for words to look. I will not be able to give every reason because there are so many I fear my computer would break, but here are a few of the reasons the English language needs a set way to spell every word.

  1. Dialects are not everything. Where I go to school in South Carolina, people speak their own language. There are different country-isms for places to eat, kinds of food, ways to address people, and so many other things. Just today, I heard a man say he “has a hankerin’ for a steak this big, with a big ol’ ‘tater.” when I gave him a confused look he told me “People from Pickens got a diff’rent way of talkin’. You gotta talk like this to be understood.” This does not seem all that out of the ordinary, but what if he had been talking to someone from the far north or someone who does not speak English as a first language? What the man said would not make sense. Maybe he was talking about food he likes, maybe he was insulting their mother. They can’t tell because his dialect is so far off from the original intended language. Now, try writing down what he said. You can’t see it, but under the quotes from that man, the red squiggly line of incorrect spelling-related death is all over the place. The new contractions and ways of shortening and changing words would not make sense to most people from other countries or other places. People trapped in a cycle of speaking and writing in their native dialects have a more difficult time showing what they write to the rest of the world. People don’t read what they can’t understand.
  2. Misspellings can change the meaning. It has been said over and over again: “your” is different from “you’re.” “There” is different from “they’re” and “their.” “Too” is different from “to” and “two.” These words are some of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language. People use them all interchangeably, but these mistakes are capable of changing a sentence drastically. The entire point being made could be altered. Spelling those words incorrectly is one of my greatest pet peeves of all time, and that is not only due to my being an English major. If I was trying to talk to someone and they told me “your really cool,” I would not feel capable of accepting the compliment. I would ask them what of my cool things they were trying to think of, and they would probably end the friendship then and there. I know how annoying it is to be corrected, but when someone makes a mistake like that I feel that it is my civic duty to tell them that they are wrong so that they don’t make the mistake again.
  3. Continuity, continuity, continuity. The OED defines continuity as “the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over time.” Continuity adds security to something that is otherwise unstable. The chaos of written language before the language has been set in stone is not something that should be allowed to exist, so the creation of a dictionary that documents almost every word in the language provides a solution for the mess of words that were unruly before.

If James Murray knew how good for the English language the creation of a sound dictionary would really be, the questions and doubts he had during the long process of making the dictionary set would have flown out the window. If Murray hadn’t made the Oxford English Dictionary, the other dictionaries would have been more prominent, but the definitions and spellings we have for words now would not have been as good as they are today. James Murray saw a problem and found a solution. He started a trend of setting the language to a tone people could follow for hundreds of years.