The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie - review by Nigel Andrew

Nigel Andrew

Never Lost for Words

The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary


Chatto & Windus 355pp £22

Browsing in the basement archives of Oxford University Press one day in 2015, lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie struck gold – well, lexicographer’s gold. Outwardly, it was only a battered black book tied with a cream ribbon, but it contained the names and addresses of some three thousand volunteers who had contributed to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Each address was written out and annotated in the immaculate cursive hand of the presiding spirit and driving force of the great dictionary, James Murray, its editor from 1879 until his death in 1915. 

The OED was, like many Victorian information-gathering ventures, assembled through a form of what we would now call crowdsourcing. In an age of leisured amateurs, learned societies and energetic enthusiasts, not to mention a swift and efficient postal service, this was the natural way to do things, and Murray perfected it. From the outset, the dictionary editors had invited members of the public to contribute by reading books, noting examples of how particular words were used, writing down the words and the sentences in which they occurred on four-by-six-inch slips of paper, and sending them to the editors. Until Murray took over, this had been a rather haphazard affair, but he, with characteristic thoroughness, tightened up the process and issued a worldwide appeal for more readers to join in building what was to be a dictionary of not only British English but also world English. The massive response turned Murray’s Oxford home into a lexicographical factory, with Murray and his assistants working in the Scriptorium, a large iron shed in the garden, and members of his family also enlisted in the great enterprise.

This aspect of the making of the dictionary has been written about before, notably in James’s granddaughter K M Elisabeth Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words (1977), but the contribution of all those volunteer readers has attracted far less attention, largely because so little has been known about them

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