Dog Eared

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A Worldly Tour of the Oxford English Dictionary

Late last year, there was some controversy in the media over a new book by Sarah Ogilvie about the Oxford English Dictionary's historical coverage of foreign words. The controversy turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, overshadowing the worthy book behind it. Here, Mark Peters has an appreciation of Ogilvie's Words of the World.

The Oxford English Dictionary is an extremely England-focused book, right? It always has been, especially under original editor James Murray, who was a total Anglophile. A breakthrough occurred when Robert Burchfield took the editorial reins, opening up the OED to Englishes around the world, making it truly international. The end.

In the lexicographical world, those beliefs are commonly held and unquestioned. However, those prevailing views, like so many, are a bunch of bunk, as Sarah Ogilvie so persuasively demonstrates in her new book Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Ogilvie argues that Murray was extremely welcoming to words from around the world, while Burchfield was nowhere near the trailblazer he claimed to be. Along the way, Ogilvie gives an insider's look at the OED that is rich in detail and enjoyable for reasons that go far beyond its central argument.

Full disclosure: I am an OED-aholic: a condition sadly neglected by the DSM-5. The online updates to the OED are marked on my calendar. I use the OED for every article I write. If I had a time machine, I would travel back to before Ammon Shea wrote his book Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages and steal the idea. I value my dog and maybe three friends more than the OED. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Just my dog.

I assume most readers here share my addiction, and if I'm right about that, you will love this book, which provides buckets of insights into the history of the OED as well as its day-to-day workings. I loved reading about the code of silence in the office, the tradition of drinking at the Old Bookbinder's Arms, and the sheer joy of being around other word-lusters. I felt wildly jealous when reading lines like these: "At the OED, I had found soulmates and fellow editors who shared my own passion for the words we worked on and were just as enthusiastic to share their discoveries as to hear mine."

Ogilvie's enthusiasm — and status as an Australian, who is currently Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre — organically led to the existence of this book. It's a perfect match of author and subject. While making her argument about Murray and Burchfield in regards to Englishes of the world, Ogilvie makes many other important points along the way, especially how "...certain elements of lexicographic practice, which are intended to tell us about the words, actually tell us more about the attitudes of the lexicographers." The gap between what editors said and did is a huge part of this book.

In a book about the OED as a global dictionary, it's appropriate that the legions of readers from around the world who contribute citations are given their due. Chris Collier in particular is singled out as a lexicographical superhero, one Ogilvie encountered through her work in Australia and later learned was invaluable to the OED. Collier was a rabid collector of examples from Brisbane's Courier Mail, and he's responsible for over 100,000 examples in the OED. Throughout this book, Ogilvie brings unsung characters like Collier to life. In describing Collier's contributions, her deadpan sense of humor shines through: "Each bundle of slips was oddly wrapped in cornflake packets, with bits of dog hair (or so we hoped) stuck to them."

As always, your mileage will vary on how interesting any single bit of lexicographical minutiae is, and this book has minutiae out the wazoo. The close analysis of the Stanford Dictionary and the OED — done to confirm or disprove Murray's claims of plagiarism — was a bit of a skimmer for me. However, this was an exception, as Ogilvie's overarching argument and enjoyable writing style carried me through the book, happily. Equally happifying were the appendices, which are chock-full of colorful charts that illustrate and reinforce many details of the argument. In fact, whoever designed this book deserves kudos because it's extremely pleasing, and I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps some combination of font and ratio of image to text is working a kind of unconscious design voodoo on me, which I guess is the whole idea.

This compelling, detail-rich book makes an argument and backs it up with evidence to spare. More than that, it provides a journey through time and citation slips that should fascinate even the most jaded dictionary-hugger. I liked this book so much, it makes me crave another. Has anyone done a Life at the OED sort of book lately? If not, I nominate Ogilvie, who is such a pleasure to read. She makes you feel like you've had a beer at the Old Bookbinder's Arms, and that's a beer I'd very much like to have.

For more on the pseudo-scandal that Ogilvie's book generated, see this article in the New York Times and this Times op/ed column by our own Ben Zimmer.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 6:12 AM
Comment by: Mohammed S. (shorewood, WI)
Wow Mr. Peters,

Your second last paragraph, the last line "unconscious design voodoo" I love it. It opens up a whole new world for me.
"Unconscious lexicographic voodoo"
“A follower of unconscious theocratic voodoo"
"A victim of unconscious persuasive voodoo"
"A believer of unconscious political voodoo"

You get the point. By the way I am going to read Ogilvie's book
Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
What beautiful, relaxed and luminous prose! You are a pleasure to read, Mark.
Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 3:42 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
If Ogilive's book is "free of cost," then I've no objection going through the book at least for once. I like to sip a little from that hot tempest teapot.
By the way, used copy of books will still be fine for me.

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