At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?
- BuyWords of the World: A Global History of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ by Sarah Ogilvie
Cambridge, 241 pp, £17.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 60569 5
Of all the volunteers who contributed material to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Dixon was the most opinionated. A retired oculist living in Dorking, he was appalled when he came across the word cundum in print, and told James Murray (the OED’s editor from 1879 to 1915) that this was the name of ‘a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap’. It was ‘too utterly obscene’ to appear in the dictionary. Murray seems to have agreed: it was excluded. Other words were omitted after wide consultation (cunt) or because the entire entry was mislaid (bondmaid). At first, all proper nouns and words formed from them were passed over; as a result the first published fascicle of 1884 (covering words from a to ant) contained no entry for African. There was one for American, because at some point in the slow drafting of entries Murray abandoned the policy, but it wasn’t until 1933, when the first supplement to the OED appeared – covering new words and new meanings, as well as correcting or amplifying existing entries – that the absence of African was rectified. It takes a tendentious commentator to diagnose this as racism rather than the consequence of a questionable editorial judgment. But the critics of dictionaries are quick to interpret local blunders as marks of darker purpose.
Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013
From Tony Judge
Henry Hitchings mentions that whole entries were mislaid in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary during James Murray’s time as editor (LRB, 7 March). On one occasion it was the result of deliberate sabotage. As a child, Cyril Joad, the future BBC radio celebrity and popular philosopher, was a frequent guest at the Murrays’ house in the Banbury Road. One Sunday in summer 1899 the nine-year-old Cyril came across Murray’s Scriptorum, a large shed-like structure in the garden. Having forced his way in through a window he emptied the ink bottles and paste over the notebooks, pulled down the bookcases, and scattered the slips on which the words and their meanings were written and gummed others together. A whole pile of notes to be entered on the slips by the assistant editors was reduced to an unuseable pulp. Many words were probably lost and there was a delay of months in the publication of the next volume. Murray amazingly forgave the boy, and continued with his promise to his parents to keep an eye on him.
From P.L. Dickinson
Henry Hitchings writes that ‘in 1902 Edward VII’s coronation was delayed because he was suffering from appendicitis, and the word was suddenly everywhere.’ If indeed the king’s illness was responsible for increasing public awareness of appendicitis, there is a certain irony attached because Jane Ridley’s new biography of Edward VII shows that the monarch’s prostration was due not to appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix itself) but to perityphlitis (inflammation of the tissue around the appendix). The old story that King Edward was deprived of his appendix is a myth.
Vol. 35 No. 7 · 11 April 2013
From Peter Gilliver
Tony Judge reports the havoc wrought in James Murray’s scriptorium in 1899 by the ink-wielding schoolboy Cyril Joad, supposedly resulting in the materials for a number of words being lost to the Oxford English Dictionary: the anecdote, which Joad recounts in The Pleasure of Being Oneself, is disputed by Murray’s granddaughter Elisabeth Murray (Letters, 21 March). She observes in Caught in the Web of Words that the Murray family ‘remembered the fat, spoiled small boy, but not this episode. It was probably what Joad would like to have done, moved by the resentment which he says he felt against the “decorous regularity” of the Murray household.’ There certainly appears to have been no decline in the productivity of Murray and his fellow lexicographers in 1899: this was the year the annual total number of Dictionary pages published exceeded five hundred for the first time, an achievement they repeated in 1900 and 1901.