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About ten years ago, Sarah Ogilvie, a former editor at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), had some time on her hands. She was awaiting a visa that would bring her to the United States for a new job. With little else to do, she visited her favorite hangouts in the town of Oxford, soaking up the sights and smells of the place she was about to leave. One day, she stopped in at the OED’s archives in the basement of the Oxford University Press for a final look around.

Although the dictionary was not founded at the university, the OED might be described as the Oxford of dictionaries, so revered is it among reference works and books in general. It is the gold standard of academic English-language lexicography and a key tool behind many research projects into the history of English, including many other dictionaries. “It is as unthinkable that any contemporary lexicographer be without the OED,” wrote Sidney Landau in Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, first published in 1984, “as it is that a professional photographer fail to own a tripod to support his camera when needed.”

A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, as it was originally called, expounded a new model for dictionaries—the historical dictionary—teaching readers, many for the first time, to think of linguistic form and meaning as historically mutable. Words change—this is the OED’s great lesson, taught one dictionary entry at a time. Such change is documented and illuminated by quotations from historical and contemporary sources. The dictionary organizes the meanings of words into meticulously delineated senses, including obsolete ones. Together these methods help deliver a richness of context and background that is hard to find elsewhere.

But it is not a dictionary built for convenience. Many entries are exceedingly long. The entries for “go” and “run”—with more than 600 sense discriminations each—are currently the longest, according to Ogilvie. Hoping to translate that length into print terms, I checked the twenty-volume second edition of the dictionary, published in 1989; “go” goes on for fifteen pages and “run” runs for twenty.

Though the OED is published by Oxford University Press, it is, in many respects, the spiritual and intellectual opposite of an elite university. For one thing, its admissions policy is quite forgiving. The dictionary is not reserved for an elite fraction of the English language. With some exceptions—dirty words, for example, were suppressed for many years—all words are welcome because the OED was conceived “with an impartial hospitality,” as Richard Chenevix Trench, future Anglican archbishop of Dublin, said in his 1857 lectures to the Philological Society, which led directly to the founding of the OED.

A little over a hundred years after Samuel Johnson’s mold-breaking dictionary had introduced illustrative quotations to English-language lexicography and cast a powerful light on the great importance of sense discrimination, Trench was trying to envision what an ideal dictionary would look like. He struck a very different note than one found in Johnson, who was quite ambivalent about change though finally confessed himself helpless to arrest the ravages of time. With Trench, we see the beginning of a great about-face that led to a more detached approach among lexicographers and a greater respect for words as they exist.

A dictionary, said Trench, “is an inventory of the language.” As for the lexicographer: “It is no task of the maker of [a dictionary] to select the good words of a language.... The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad.” Or, as the OED’s exuberant founding editor, philologist Frederick Furnivall, said, “Fling our doors wide! All, all, not one, but all must enter.”

Furnivall was talking about words, of course, but he might have been talking about people as well. For the OED was created with the help of many hands, male and female, English and foreigner, living inside Britain and all over the world. These readers—incredibly helpful, unpaid volunteers who read what they wanted, but in some cases accepted rather exacting assignments—helped make the OED what it is: a singular treasure trove of English-language history.

Though the OED is published by Oxford University Press, it is, in many respects, the spiritual and intellectual opposite of an elite university.

A crowdsourced effort, the dictionary was led by a small professional staff who understood their success was utterly dependent on the selfless amateurs working for them. It had been done before (German dictionaries had crowdsourced lexicography work), but it was still extraordinary, for it marked the end of the era of the one-man dictionary, when individuals (Johnson, Webster, and many others), by themselves or with a little help, could make a dictionary from scratch. With the OED lexicography adopted the managerial methods of modern industry and contracted help from a large work force motivated by national and linguistic pride.


That day when Ogilvie visited the OED archives she happened upon a box. “It was lighter than the others. I placed it on the floor and lifted the lid. There, right on top, was a black book I had never seen before, bound with a cream ribbon.”

The book belonged to James Murray, who took over as editor of the OED from the lively but disorganized Furnivall, leader of the project for its first decade, which was not a very productive one. A schoolmaster turned lexicographer, Murray put everything into the dictionary. Unstintingly thorough, he involved his wife and children in the work and brought it with him on family vacations. For good and ill, Murray made the extreme personal sacrifice necessary for the dictionary to thrive. Even so, it grew so slowly that its own editors, one after the other, wondered if they would live long enough to see it completed.

The cream-ribbon-bound book of Murray’s that Ogilvie discovered was the linchpin of the whole enterprise. It contained the names and addresses of the many volunteers who sent in quotations for the dictionary from their readings. The pages were annotated with a code and included shorthand for work delivered and promised as well as updates on whether the reader had moved, married, given up, died, or otherwise gone silent. Who were these people? Ogilvie wondered. The Dictionary People is her answer.

Organized into twenty-six alphabetical chapters, each one presented under the heading of a salient characteristic (“H for Hopeless Contributors,” “I for Inventors,” “J for Junkie”), Ogilvie has written a dictionary of human beings who helped create the OED. The Dictionary People even mimics a reference work in its use of cross references. Rest assured, though, the book is a straightforward and compelling series of stories, not any kind of synoptic treatment of lexicography.

If there is a “seamy underbelly” of lexicography—as David Foster Wallace once insisted in an essay on the so-called “grammar wars” between prescriptivists and descriptivists—this might be it. Take Chapter 3, titled “C for Cannibal.” John Richardson and his daughter Beatrice were among the first 147 volunteers working under Furnivall, sending in slips with quotations. Richardson covered the poetry of Robert Burns and earlier works of Scottish literature, while Beatrice read novels by Jane Austen and Walter Scott. But, quickly, this sketch of domestic bliss turns dark. A surgeon by training John had, many years earlier, been a part of John Franklin’s 1819 expedition to find a Northwest Passage, in which eleven men died of starvation and three were killed. Richardson himself killed one man who had fed Richardson and others meat they later suspected was that of their murdered peers.

A crowdsourced effort, the dictionary was led by a small professional staff who understood their success was utterly dependent on the selfless amateurs working for them.

“Q for Queers” is the seventeenth chapter. But “queer” (with its various and barbed meanings) only begins to describe Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who bonded over their shared enthusiasm for dictionary work. They were indeed lovers and housemates, but also related by blood as aunt and niece. Additionally, they were cowriters who published together under a single pen name, Michael Field. Field’s poetry was compared to that of Swinburne and Shakespeare and praised in the Spectator. Bradley and Cooper even kept a joint diary.

“Queer” is an example of a word that might have been admitted to the dictionary much sooner, as Ogilvie shows. Kept out of the OED until 1982, “queer” was later found in the notorious missive that the Marquess of Queensberry wrote almost a century earlier to Oscar Wilde, which expressed disgust at Wilde’s relationship with the Marquess’s son and led to a pair of trials and Wilde’s imprisonment for gross indecency. (The imprisonment, in turn, led to the “Ballad of Reading Gaol.”) In that same decade, the 1890s, Ogilvie mentions, Havelock Ellis explored the idea of the “invert” in his book Sexual Inversion, which understood homosexuality as a gender reversal. Ellis collaborated with John Addington Symonds, whom the OED credits with the first use of “homosexual” in 1891.

Ogilvie’s investigation of Murray’s notebook turned up an amazing amount of material. Dictionary People is especially thick with tweedy eccentrics. There is Frederick Elworthy, a sheep farmer in Somerset who, according to Ogilvie, “had one of the world’s largest private collections of folklore charms and amulets.” Henry Spencer Ashbee, a family man and the manager of a London trading firm, also “owned the world’s largest collection of pornography and erotica.” A middle-class housewife in Kent, Mary Vernon also volunteered for the British Rainfall Organisation, measuring rainfall and tracking other weather phenomena for that rather different crowdsourced effort. Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father and one of the more skilled readers called in to help with special problems, led the Sunday Tramps, a group of intellectuals who walked and hiked together on Sundays—as agnostics, they emphatically did not reserve the day for churchgoing.

Among the most prolific readers for the dictionary the subject of mental illness comes up a lot. Those already familiar with Simon Winchester’s absorbing take on the OED, The Professor and the Madman, will be surprised at how much more there is to tell on this score. “All of Murray’s top four contributors had connections to mental asylums,” writes Ogilvie, “one as an administrator and three as inmates.” This comes in “L for Lunatics” (Ogilvie’s headings occasionally indulge in pre–politically correct language), which happens to be the longest chapter in the book.

John Dormer was not only a reader but a subeditor who could be assigned especially consuming jobs. For example, he was asked to create “Lists of Special Wants,” which required him to “examine over 200,000 slips; sort them into senses; order them chronologically; and identify any gaps in the quotation paragraphs that needed filling.” One does not need great familiarity with the inner workings of a dictionary to tremble at the thought of such a task. Surely, at some point, a kind of snow blindness sets in, making the direction of forward progress nearly impossible to make out. At the age of thirty-five Dormer began hearing voices and became convinced his next-door neighbors were drilling holes into the wall of his house to shoot at him and kill him.

The French call the members of their dictionary academy “immortals.” Ogilvie’s word nerds are all too human for such a moniker. They are outsiders and autodidacts. They struggle with vices. They lose their minds. They adopt quixotic causes such as spelling reform. Murray himself was one of several people involved with the dictionary who were advocates for Glossotype, a simplified spelling system that, if adopted, would have made his dictionary an instant artifact. Yet the cause of the dictionary added prestige and even gave shape to the lives of its contributors. A. Caland, a Dutch schoolmaster whom Murray called one of the dictionary’s “most devoted and helpful voluntary workers,” wrote, not long before his death, that “this interest was the one thing that kept me alive.”

There is a curiously nostalgic cast to the many popularizing books published in recent years about reference works and the fading culture of print. Ogilvie’s valuable contribution, however, brings with it a refreshing directness that at once illuminates the history of the OED while connecting us to our predecessors, people like us, people of the book and of books, stalkers of information, obsessives one and all, for whom words mean even more than perhaps they should.

The Dictionary People
The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary
Sarah Ogilvie
$30 | 371 pp.

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language, usage, and dictionaries. He is the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published and a former member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

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