Who Made the Oxford English Dictionary?


Category:  Other

Via:  hallux  •  9 months ago  •  13 comments

By:   Stephanie Hayes - The Atlantic

Who Made the Oxford English Dictionary?
A new book gives life to one of the world’s greatest crowdsourcing efforts.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

The   Oxford English Dictionary   always seemed to me like the Rules from on high—near biblical, laid down long ago by a distant academic elite. But back in 1857, when the idea of the dictionary was born, its three founders proposed something more democratic than authoritative: a reference book that didn’t prescribe but instead   described   English, tracking the meaning of every word in the language across time and laying out how people were actually using each one.

As Sarah Ogilvie writes in her new book,   The Dictionary People , the   OED ’s founders realized that such a titanic task could never be accomplished by a small circle of men in London and Oxford, so they sought out volunteers. That search expanded when the eccentric philologist James Murray took the helm in 1879 as the   Dictionary ’s third editor. Murray cast a far wider net than his predecessors had, circulating a call for contributors to newspapers, universities, and clubs around the globe. He instructed people to read the books they had on hand, fill 4-by-6-inch slips of paper with quotations that showed how words were used therein, and send them to his “Scriptorium” (the iron shed behind his house where he and a devoted crew worked on the   Dictionary ). The wave of submissions was so overwhelming that the Royal Mail installed a red post box in front of his home in Oxford, which   remains there   today.

One of the greatest crowdsourcing efforts in history—“the Wikipedia of the nineteenth century,” as Ogilvie puts it—the  OED  would not have been possible without this army of volunteers. And yet, for years, most have remained unknown. In his exuberant 2003 history of the  OED The Meaning of Everything , Simon Winchester devoted a chapter to the  Dictionary ’s contributors—not just the readers who sent in slips, but the subeditors who sorted submissions chronologically and by meaning, and the specialists who advised on specific terminology or etymologies. Winchester served up small biographies of a few key figures but lamented of the group that “their legacy … remains essentially unwritten.” In  The Dictionary People , Ogilvie sets out to correct the record. A former editor at the  Oxford English Dictionary , Ogilvie stumbled upon Murray’s address books while passing time in the  Dictionary ’s archives. Upon learning that the number of volunteers wasn’t merely hundreds (as scholars long believed) but some 3,000, she became determined to track each of them down.

The resulting book is, like the  Dictionary  itself, a clear labor of love, both playful and doggedly researched. Ogilvie spent eight years trawling through libraries and dusty archives across the globe. She pored over the editors’ correspondence, mapped how news of the project spread across social clubs in Britain and beyond, and even recruited a handwriting expert to help determine who was behind scores of the raciest slips. She orders her history alphabetically, categorizing the keenest and quirkiest contributors into different groups—“I for Inventors,” “S for Suffragists,” “M for Murderers”—and offering bite-size biographies of dozens of figures.

Under “Q for Queers,” we meet Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and niece who, in the late 1800s, became lovers and literary collaborators, publishing plays and poetry under the pen name Michael Field. (Critics gushed about Field, comparing “him” to Shakespeare.) In her spare time, Katharine sent in quotations from John Ruskin and  The Iliad . We meet the owner of the world’s largest collection of erotica at the time, who is thought to have supplied sentences for words related to genitalia, bondage, and flagellation—along with spicier quotations for otherwise-innocuous entries. We encounter Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, whose half-baked efforts exasperated Murray, and the much more devoted William Chester Minor, a former American Army surgeon who submitted 62,720 slips from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he was sent after murdering a man. (Dr. Minor was allowed to keep a separate cell for his books.)

What starts out as a detective story quickly evolves into an ode to the outsider. Some famous figures make appearances in  The Dictionary People —the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, known for his studies of animal motion, advised on entries, including the one for  gallop ; and a young J. R. R. Tolkien was an editorial assistant for a year, during which time he worked on the letter  W , puzzling over possible etymologies of the word  walrus . But Ogilvie marvels that many of the  Dictionary ’s key contributors were “on the edges of academia.” They were inventors and pioneers with radical ideas; women (at a time when many were denied higher education) and other autodidacts; asylum patients and recluses. This motley crew shared a hunger to be associated with the prestigious Oxford University, to be part of a project of national importance. Perhaps this desire for belonging powered their obsessive (often unpaid) devotion to the undertaking? Perhaps, for those cast aside by society, like Dr. Minor, their involvement was redemptive? Ogilvie doesn’t linger long on their motives, preferring instead to assemble surprising bits of trivia about each figure.

The most compelling portrait is that of Murray, the  Dictionary ’s longest-serving editor, who emerges as the book’s protagonist. The son of a village tailor in Scotland, Murray left school at 14, eventually becoming a bank clerk and then a teacher at Mill Hill School in London. Over the years, he taught himself to read some 25 languages, including Tongan and Russian, and developed an interest in philology, writing books on Scottish dialects. In the late 1860s, he was invited to join the London Philological Society, where the idea for the  OED  had been born in 1857. But as a teetotaling Scot with little formal education, Murray was continually excluded from the indulgent academic establishment of Oxford. He was never made a fellow of a University college, and he wasn’t granted an honorary doctorate until 1914, the year before he died.

The  OED ’s progress had stalled under Murray’s predecessor, Frederick Furnivall, whose involvement with various academic clubs left him little time to actually edit (but had the benefit, Ogilvie points out, of bringing in a steady stream of contributors). Murray revived the project. For 36 years, he devoted himself to an undertaking that, he noted late in life, “should have been the work of a celibate and ascetic.” He rose by five each morning and spent the day writing letters to volunteers, sorting words into their shades of meaning, and drafting definitions. He was often spotted delivering copy to the publisher by tricycle, his long white beard trailing behind him as he pedaled wildly about town. Murray’s wife, Ada, was instrumental, managing his finances and acting as his personal secretary. Even his kids were involved: Murray brought slips to the table to discuss over lunch and recruited each of his 11 children to sort submissions. For all this, he was paid a pitiful sum, which had to cover not just his wages but those of the Scriptorium staff and the  Dictionary ’s expenses.

Over the years, Murray resisted calls from the publisher and reviewers to narrow the Dictionary’s scope. He was pressured to use quotations from only the “great authors,” eschew slang, and omit words deemed too scientific or vulgar or foreign. Murray refused, believing that all of the English language had a valid place in the  Dictionary , just as all contributors who put in the work were welcome. As Ogilvie shows in her earlier, wonkier history of the  OED Words of the World , as an editor, Murray was particularly devoted to including foreign words that had entered into English—a stance that can be read as either inclusive or colonizing, though Ogilvie seems to lean toward the former.

Murray died in 1915, shortly after finishing the entry for  twilight , and 13 years before the  OED ’s monumental first edition was completed. The  Dictionary  has continued to evolve with the world; its third edition, which Ogilvie worked on, has been in progress since 1993, and uses the editing process devised by Murray. (Recent additions include  deepfake ,   teen idol , and  textspeak .) In her final chapter, Ogilvie visits a man named Chris Collier from her hometown of Brisbane, Australia, who sent in 100,000 slips from 1975 to 2010. Collier cut quotations out of his local newspaper and pasted them directly onto slips, which arrived at the  OED  offices wrapped in old cornflakes packaging. “I thought to myself, imagine if I could help get one word into the dictionary,” he told Ogilvie. To his neighbors, he was the local nudist (he was known to take naked evening walks), but in certain Oxford circles he was practically famous, having supplied thousands of new words.

Red Box Rules

Any word in the O.E.D. is eligible for use, however, their combinations might raise some cackles, hackles and heckles.



jrDiscussion - desc
PhD Principal
1  seeder  Hallux    9 months ago

Somewhat surprisingly not a single use of 'lexicographer'. Still a possible xmas gift to the X.

Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
2  Trout Giggles    9 months ago

Interesting and fun read. As a child, I would sit with the dictionary and read it just because I was bored

PhD Principal
2.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Trout Giggles @2    9 months ago

I have a copy of the New Century Dictionary that also serves as an extra dining chair.


Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
2.1.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Hallux @2.1    9 months ago

OMG...how much does that thing weigh?

PhD Principal
2.1.2  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Trout Giggles @2.1.1    9 months ago

somewhere around 20 lbs.

Professor Principal
2.1.3  devangelical  replied to  Trout Giggles @2.1.1    9 months ago

the interim speaker of the house might have found that useful placed on his chair ...

Just Jim NC TttH
Professor Principal
2.1.4  Just Jim NC TttH  replied to  devangelical @2.1.3    9 months ago

Jerry Nadler too

Professor Principal
2.1.5  devangelical  replied to  Just Jim NC TttH @2.1.4    9 months ago

is he a thumped out goober dwarf too?

Professor Expert
2.2  Krishna  replied to  Trout Giggles @2    9 months ago
Interesting and fun read. As a child, I would sit with the dictionary and read it just because I was bored

I did the same thing!

Professor Principal
3  JohnRussell    9 months ago

The library has the Oxford English Dictionary online. It really is an all purpose reference book. Here is the entry on "abolition"

    1. 1.a.
      The action or process of abolishing something; the fact of being abolished or done away with; suppression, destruction, annihilation; an instance of this.
      They by the dystruccyon of the clergy, meane the clere abolycyon of Chrystys fayth.
      T. More, Supplycacyon of Soulys i. f. xxvCitation details for T. More, Supplycacyon of Soulys

      The anti-kulak campaign, wholly conceived, directed and urged on by Stalin, was a massacre, not an abolition.
      Economist 4 January 6/3Citation details for Economist
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      CiteHistorical thesaurus
      society authority subjection subjecting or subjugation [nouns] suppression or repression
      = suppression, n. (in various senses).
      The action of repressing a person or thing (in various senses); an instance of this. Now esp.: cultural or political oppression, esp. when…
      The action of forcibly putting down or crushing; the repression or suppression of a person or thing. Occasionally: spec. the suppression of the…
      The action of repress, v.¹; repression.
      The action of putting down a person, group, community, etc., by the use of force or authority; reduction to a state of impotence or inactivity.
      Humiliation, abasement; condemnation; diminishment.
      Repression; constraint.
      The action or process of abolishing something; the fact of being abolished or done away with; suppression, destruction, annihilation; an instance of…
      The process of abolishing or putting an end to something; suppression, annulment, destruction; an instance of this.
      The action or process of putting an end to or doing away with something; suppression, destruction, annihilation; abolition.
      = repression, n. II.2a.
      = suppression, n. (in various senses).
      The action or process of compressing; pressure together; †repression.
      = repression, n. II.2a.
      An instance of ‘cracking down’, legal or disciplinary severity, repression.
      View in Historical Thesaurus
      Without of-complement. Frequently in form Abolition. The ending of the traffic in African slaves and (esp. U.S. History) the ending of the holding of African slaves. See also abolitionism n.
      The traffic in, and holding of, African slaves was in operation in European colonies and the United States from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Organized opposition to the slave trade began in the second half of the 18th cent. In 1807 a British movement led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson secured the abolition of the trade to the British colonies; in the same year the United States officially stopped the importation of new slaves. The holding of slaves was prohibited in the British West Indies in 1838 and in French colonies a few years later. Strong opposition to slave emancipation in the Southern states of America combined with the election as president in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln (who was opposed to the introduction of slavery into the western territories) led to the American Civil War (1861–5). Slaves in areas of rebellion were freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; all slaves in the United States were finally liberated by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
      Some Regulations that have taken Place in the Spanish Colonies, which..are certainly worthy our Imitation, in case we should not be so happy as to obtain an entire Abolition of Slavery.
      Pennsylvania Gazette 13 January 4/1Citation details for Pennsylvania Gazette]
      The general arguments concerning the good policy of slavery and the slave trade... If it can be proved that good policy..condemns the measure under our consideration,..we may reasonably hope for its final abolition.
      G. Gregory, Ess. Hist. & Moral 320Citation details for G. Gregory, Ess. Hist. & Moral
      Essay on the comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition as applied to the Slave-trade.
      T. Clarkson (title)
      He used arguments to show the..impolicy of keeping these people in a state of Slavery; with declarations, however, that he did not wish for more than a gradual abolition.
      G. Washington, Diaries (1925) vol. IV. 104Citation details for G. Washington, Diaries
      The author travels to Paris to promote the abolition in France.
      T. Clarkson, Hist. Abolition vol. II. ii. 118Citation details for T. Clarkson, Hist. Abolition
      If a slave..did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition.
      F. Douglass, Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass vii. 41Citation details for F. Douglass, Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass
      The ‘causes’ to which we have sacrificed, Tariff or Democracy, Whigism or Abolition, Temperance or Socialism, would show like roots of bitterness.
      R. W. Emerson, Culture in Conduct of Life (London edition) 119Citation details for R. W. Emerson, Culture
      When Brown assailed slavery in Virginia, the outlook for Abolition was never so hopeful.
      O. G. Villard, John Brown 586Citation details for O. G. Villard, John Brown
      The story begins with chaos in the belly of a slave ship..and goes on to trace the faltering attempt, after Abolition, to create a separate society in the hills.
      London Review of Books 22 May 18/1Citation details for London Review of Books
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      † The final overlooking or condonation of an offence, an amnesty; (Law) permission from the Crown or the court to abandon or withdraw from a criminal prosecution. Obsolete.
      After that Cæsar was slaine..all men for feare of troubles and uprores decreed a finall abolition and oblivion of that fact.
      P. Holland, translation of Suetonius, Historie of Twelve Caesars 89Citation details for P. Holland translation of Suetonius, Historie of Twelve Caesars
      Lord Ravenstein, a principall person about Maximilian, and one that had taken the oath of Abolition with his Master.
      F. Bacon, Historie of Raigne of Henry VII 77Citation details for F. Bacon, Historie of Raigne of Henry VII
      Abolition, A destroying or putting out of memory; the leave given by the King or Judges to a criminal accuser to desist from further prosecution.
      Blount's Νομο-λεξικον (ed. 2) Citation details for Blount's Νομο-λεξικον
      Abolition, a destroying or effacing or putting out of memory.
      T. E. Tomlins, Jacob's Law-dictionaryCitation details for T. E. Tomlins, Jacob's Law-dictionary
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      the mind operation of the mind memory faulty recollection deliberate forgetting, condoning [nouns]
      Intentional overlooking of an offence, esp. a political one; amnesty, pardon. Chiefly (now with capital initial) in the names of parliamentary…
      An act of forgetfulness or oblivion; an intentional overlooking of something. Also: a state of forgetfulness or oblivion. Now rare and poetic.
      The final overlooking or condonation of an offence, an amnesty; (Law) permission from the Crown or the court to abandon or withdraw from a…
      The action or fact of forgetting or not remembering; lack or failure of recollection.
Just Jim NC TttH
Professor Principal
4  Just Jim NC TttH    9 months ago

Can't you edit them out?

PhD Principal
4.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Just Jim NC TttH @4    9 months ago


Professor Principal
5  Gsquared    9 months ago

I have a copy of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a two volume set (both very large books) with four pages of the O.E.D on each page.  It came in a box with a drawer at the top that has a magnifying glass.  It was published in 1971.


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