Literary Programme 2018

Coffee & Chat with John Simpson

Coffee & Chat with John Simpson

John Simpson

Bantry House Tearoom

Mon 16 July 2018




Language is always changing. No one knows where it is going but the best way to future-cast is to look at the past. In his memoir The Word Detective: A Life in Words John Simpson, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, animates for us a tradition of researching and editing, showing us both the technical lexicography needed to understand a word, and the careful poetry needed to construct its definition. He challenges both the idea that dictionaries are definitive, and the notion that language is falling apart.

With a sense of humour, an ability to laugh at bureaucracy and an inclination to question the status quo, John gives life to the colourful characters at the OED and to the English language itself. He splices his stories with entertaining and erudite diversions into the history and origin of words such as ‘kangaroo’, ‘hot-dog’, ‘pommie’, bicycle’, not ignoring those swearwords often classed as ‘Anglo-Saxon’! The book will speak to anyone who uses a dictionary, ‘word people’, history lovers, students and parents.

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. [John Simpson] is an absolute hero.’ Lynne Truss, New York Times

‘Once I started this memoir, chronicling John Simpson’s career at the OED… I couldn’t put it down… He’s incredibly erudite, but that never gets in the way of lucid, and often wry, writing.’ Mashed Radish

‘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.’ The Irish News

John Simpson was Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary for twenty years until he retired in 2013. He joined the staff of the OED way back in 1976, but these days doesn’t often admit to that. His wry and informal memoir of the words, the people, and the life he experienced there, The Word Detective, was published by Little, Brown in 2016. With that behind him, John is now editing an online James Joyce website (, researching 19th-century paupers in Gloucestershire, writing an introduction to Ambrose Bierce’s cult American Devil’s Dictionary, and (still) doing bits and bobs of work on the OED (in between real life).

John’s photo is by