The Monumental Book that the Brothers Grimm Never Completed

alex atkins bookshelf booksMost readers are familiar with the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) most famous book, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, originally published in 1812. The first edition was originally titled Kinder- und Hausmarchan (Children’s and Household Tales) and contained 86 fairy tales; almost a half century later, the book’s seventh edition contained 210 fairy tales. Although the book was very popular, the book that made the Grimm name really famous was Jacob’s German Grammar, published in 1819. But it was their last writing project for a monumental book that overwhelmed the brothers and thus, was never completed.

By the 1830s, following the success of their previous books, both Jacob and Wilhelm became professors at the University of Gottingen. In 1837, King Ernst August II who ruled the Kingdom of Hanover demanded that all academics swear an oath of loyalty to him. Because they refused, the Grimm Brothers were banished from the university and had to seek employment elsewhere. They accepted an offer from a Frankfurt publisher to create a comprehensive dictionary of the German language to be titled Deutsches Worterbuch (The German Dictionary). The two brothers began the work in 1838 and estimated that the dictionary would fill four volumes and take about ten years. They hired readers to read texts from German literature, from Luther to Goethe, from the 16th to 18th centuries, to identify words to include in the dictionary. The brothers underestimated the complexity of the project. The first volume (A to Biermolke) was not published until 1854, the second volume (Biermolke to E) was published in 1860. Sadly, the brothers never completed the dictionary: Wilhelm died in 1859 having completed “D”words, and Jacob died in 1863 midway through the “F” words (the last word he defined was “frucht” (fruit).

In 1867 the project received funding from the government and a team headed by Rudolf Hildebrand (a former proofread for the book) began work on completing the comprehensive dictionary. He worked diligently for years but only reached the letter K. The project stalled for some time and was resumed by two teams, one from Gottingen and another working from Berlin.  The German Dictionary was finally completed in 1961 containing more than 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes, weighing 84 kg. The dictionary, referred to as the DWB, is the German equivalent of the OED for English. The volumes that the Brothers Grimm wrote, A through F, were completely rewritten and published in 2016 — more than two centuries after the monumental book project was conceived. As of this writing, a first edition is worth about $2,000.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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