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Words of the world: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie

Reviewed by Pam Peters, Emeritus Professor, Macquarie University

This book engages readers with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, from its conception and realization in the first edition (12 volumes 1884-1928, plus Supplement 1933), through to its second edition (20 volumes) incorporating the four post-World War II Supplements (1972-86). 

In six chapters Ogilvie foregrounds the different styles and characters of all the major lexicographers who contributed to this mammoth work of scholarship.

It includes the English scholars who conceived and developed the project from 1857 to 1879 within the London Philological Society: Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet Samuel C), Frederick Furnivall, Richard Trench), through to the Dictionary's mobilization under the aegis of Oxford University Press, with the appointment of James Augustus Murray as editor. 

He worked tirelessly on it from 1878 until his death in 1915 (by which time some 11 letters were complete (A-D, H-K, O,P,T). The contributions of senior lexicographers who completed the first edition are profiled - especially Henry Bradley and Charles Onions (working in Oxford) and William Craigie (mostly in the US). 

They were followed by Robert Burchfield, a New Zealander appointed in 1957 to compile the post-WWII Supplements, which were subsequently merged into the second edition (1989).

Previous accounts of the making of the Oxford Dictionary have tended to focus particularly on the work of James Murray, notably his granddaughter Elisabeth Murray with Caught in the Web of Words (1977) and Simon Winchester in The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998). But Ogilvie sets Murray's crucial contribution in a wider context of English lexicography, most notably his relationship with John Stanford, author of Stanford Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases (1892). It brings out a highly competitive aspect of Murray's character, and an interesting interlude in the history of Oxford-Cambridge rivalry.

But the issue is also central to Ogilvie's book, highlighting the question as to whether foreign words borrowed into English ("words of the world") should be seen as elements of the wider lexicon of world English, or documented as a separate vocabulary. 

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Murray was passionately inclusive of "words of the world", and actively solicited them from published traveler's tales, and from friends and members of the family stationed overseas. But there were continual rumblings among Murray's associate editors and the Delegates of Oxford University Press about the foreign inclusions in the first edition, which he noted but resisted.

By contrast, Burchfield emerges from Ogilvie's final chapter as the editor most inclined to limit the number of foreignisms. From her fine-grained research into the Oxford archives, Ogilvie finds that he excluded 17% of the foreign words previously included in the 1933 Supplement - contrary to a fundamental Dictionary policy, that words once documented would never be omitted from the published record. They are evidently still in the digital archives, but no longer publicly accessible. Her evidence contrasts with the rhetoric of Burchfield and his publisher on how the second edition of the Dictionary makes good the deficit of the first edition in covering "words of the world".

Ogilvie herself has wide experience of the making of dictionaries, both within Australia (at the Australian National Dictionary Centre and at Macquarie Dictionary), as well as a stint within the dictionary headquarters at Oxford. There she encountered very different working conditions from those of her Australian experience, and some remarkable personalities and interests among the lexicographic team.

She was able to dig deep into the Dictionary archives, where not only Murray's famous collection of index cards remains, but also the inputs of rank-and-file editors, sometimes written on chocolate wrappers in an effort to save paper. Most importantly, she was able to view the proofs of the 1933 Supplement early and late in the production process, and thus to compare the treatment of foreign words by the editors then, and subsequently.

One of the quests Ogilvie set herself in connection with the words of the world was to find out how and why the "tramlines" used in the first edition to mark certain foreign words came to be omitted from the 1933 Supplement. Murray had used these parallel vertical lines alongside foreign headwords that he judged to be not fully assimilated within the English language. 

On his scale from naturals and denizens to aliens and casuals, it was the last two types whose spelling and pronunciation remained foreign that he marked with tramlines. Ogilvie discovered that though they were attached to numerous foreign words in the Supplement's early page proofs in 1928-9, they disappeared from the final publication in 1933 (in all but two cases).

The key explanation, according to a recently discovered letter from Onions, was his discomfort in judging just how assimilated individual foreign words might be. The removal of tramlines may also reflect the influence of the Society for Pure English, headed by notable literary figures such as Robert Bridges and later George Bernard Shaw, which promoted anglicised spellings and pronunciations of foreign words. 

Tramlines were nevertheless reinstated on foreign words by Burchfield in the post WWII Supplements, and even added to some words which had not borne them in the first edition. This would be further evidence that Burchfield, despite coming from the southern hemisphere, was less well disposed to words of the world than the first edition editors.

Ogilvie's book contains numerous black and white photos, and facsimiles of dictionary pages from the first edition on to show the treatment of words of the world, as well as color reproductions of graphs and charts to project the relative inputs of foreign words by different editors. The color helps to distinguish all the source languages in bar charts showing how many have provided English loanwords.

Unsurprisingly French was the standout source for all the Supplements, though Hindi ranks second for the 1933 Supplement and Japanese for the post-war Supplements. All this and much more, from the world of words - on words of the world. The book is rich in detail for dictionary specialists as well as the general reader.


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Consultant: Pam Peters
Assistant: Yasmyn Funk

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