Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary

Sarah Ogilvie’s Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary begins by describing her entry into the quiet world of the OED. She had come from of Australian branch of Oxford dictionaries, was a rare linguist among lexicographers, and quickly found herself fascinated by the OED archives, where she discovered some interesting facts about the OED editors. The early editors were not quite so fusty as many thought.

The question she focused on was this: how did the OED editors treat borrowed words? The simplified story that is often told is that the OED went from a tool of British empire-building to a repository of the world’s Englishes, evolving to preserve the flexibility and utility of English. It turns out that that story of progress is too simple. The early editors, especially Murray, Furnivall, and Onions, and were quite open to loan words (they essentially treated words used in an English context as English). And Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED supplement published in 1986, was not as inclusive as the reputation he cultivated. (In another context, John Updike has once referred to him as pleading the case of outcast words “like a left-wing lawyer”). Comparing the 1986 supplement to the 1933 supplement, Ogilvie found that the later supplement omitted many loanwords rather than marking them with as obsolete (with a dagger, naturally).

Was Burchfield making editorial choices (the words after all were still in the OED1) or lexicographic purging? It’s an open question but the press has sensationalized the story a bit, and Burchfield does seem to have overly hyped his own role. But, as Ogilvie makes clear, the story is really about the foresight of the early editors in deciding what a historical dictionary should do and how it should reach out to the English- speaking world.

Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary is scholarly but readable and certainly changed the way I think of the OED.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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