Saturday 22 June 2024

Guest Review: The Dictionary People By Sarah Ogilvie

What do three murderers, Karl Marx's daughter and a vegetarian vicar have in common?
They all helped create the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary has long been associated with elite institutions and Victorian men. But the Dictionary didn't just belong to the experts; it relied on contributions from members of the public. By 1928, its 414,825 entries had been crowdsourced from a surprising and diverse group of people, from astronomers to murderers, naturists, pornographers, suffragists and queer couples.

Lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie dives deep into previously untapped archives to tell a people's history of the OED. Here, she reveals, for the first time, the full story of the making of one of the most famous books in the world - and celebrates the extraordinary efforts of the Dictionary People.

Review: The sub-title of this book is “The Unsung Heroes Who Created The Oxford English Dictionary”. The author, Sarah Ogilvie, is a lexicographer who has worked as an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The first edition of the OED was compiled between 1858 and 1928. The aim of its editors was to create a dictionary that not only gave the definitions of the words but also described how they originated and were used over time, using quotations from written sources to provide examples. During this period, the longest serving editor, from 1879 until 1915, was a former schoolteacher called James Murray. The editors realised that the task of tracing words from their earliest sources would require a huge input, so they requested volunteers from across the English-speaking world to send in examples of words and their use in quotations. This crowdsourcing project was made possible following the launch of the uniform penny post and the growth of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century.

There was a total of three thousand volunteers. This book describes a selection of these unpaid and unsung people and also provides biographical details of James Murray. Sarah Ogilvie was aided in her research by her discovery in the archives of James Murray’s address books which contained the names and addresses of these contributors. The book comprises twenty-six chapters which, unsurprisingly for a book about a dictionary, start at the letter A and end at the letter Z. What emerges is an eclectic mix of Victorian and Edwardian characters from across the globe. These people were mostly amateurs who were only too ready to contribute to an intellectual project at a time when many, especially women, were denied access to higher education. There were some unusual contributors, including the daughter of Karl Marx, three murderers and a number of inmates of mental institutions.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but quickly found it to be a fascinating insight into both the process of compiling a dictionary and also the lives of a wide-ranging mix of the contributors. The author’s enthusiasm for her subject is evident throughout. I did find that a tome written by a lexicographer contained many long words that, ironically, I had to look up in a dictionary (including the word lexicographer: noun - a compiler of dictionaries). As an informative guide as to how a classic reference work first saw the light of day and an insight into some of the characters involved, I would recommend this book.

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