The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes who Created the Oxford English Dictionary 
by Sarah Ogilvie.
Chatto, 384 pp., £22, September, 978 1 78474 493 9
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In my teens​ I walked to school each day past a red pillar box on Banbury Road in Oxford, said to have been installed by the Royal Mail to ease the labours of James Murray at the helm of the Oxford English Dictionary. With a magnificent incuriosity, I never thought to wonder at the strangeness of a post box positioned to enable a dictionary – it was simply where I deposited weekly letters to my friend Marian, who lived two buses away and went to a different school. But it was indispensable for Murray because correspondence was at the centre of his ambitious lexicographical project. Every entry in the OED drew on the reading history of at least one of thousands of volunteers who found and sent in quotations that were, and remain, the dictionary’s bedrock, and from which successive generations of editors have teased out fine-grained definitions and differences in sense. The stories of these volunteers form the backbone of Sarah Ogilvie’s book.

Murray edited the OED from his grandly named ‘Scriptorium’, which was in fact a large corrugated iron shed, built first in the grounds of Mill Hill School, where he taught, and then in his garden at 78 Banbury Road. He began working on the dictionary in 1879; the first volume of the first edition was published in 1884. But the project had been up and running since 1857, when the Philological Society developed the concept of a new national dictionary that would supplant the pioneering work of Samuel Johnson, and rival the efforts of 19th-century European lexicographers. Peter Gilliver, in The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (2016), characterises the movement that led to the formalisation of the Philological Society’s proposals as ‘a groundswell of what might be called lexicographic nationalism’, and the OED has often been regarded in parallel with other great Victorian infrastructure projects: the building of the Forth rail bridge, or the construction by Leslie Stephen (himself a contributor to the OED) of his monumental Dictionary of National Biography.

Ogilvie points out that for many years the OED wasn’t as stable or institutionally protected as such analogies suggest. Its founders were determined that their dictionary should be ‘no patch upon old garments, but a new garment throughout’, an ambition that meant there could be no relying on Johnson, or cribbing the work of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, their main rival in the world of 19th-century English language dictionaries. Herbert Coleridge, the first editor of the OED, died only a few years into the project, leaving Frederick Furnivall, one of the prime movers of the Philological Society, to act as editor for most of the first twenty years of compilation. All the founders knew that English lexicography was far behind European scholarship: Gilliver suggests that the dictionary with the strongest claim to have influenced the OED is not Johnson’s but the fourth edition of Franz Passow’s Handwörterbuch der griechischen Sprache, published in 1831. It was Passow, in his shorter second edition of 1826, who laid down the principles on which the OED would be founded, when he argued that a dictionary should reveal ‘the life history of each individual word’ by including quotations that showed how and when each meaning was first used. One result of the scale of the ambition behind the dictionary was that it took years for an agreement to be reached between the founders and Oxford University Press. Progress stalled as editors changed, and when Murray took over the paperwork related to Furnivall’s early attempts at quotation collection, he discovered in among the piles of mouldering documents much rubbish and several dead rats.

In a series of photographs taken inside the Scriptorium, Murray looks like the quintessential Oxford scholar, with long beard, academic cap and all the accoutrements of the Victorian sage. But he was an outsider, a nonconformist Scot who left school at fourteen yet somehow managed to learn 24 languages; he had to fight for academic recognition. At various points in the dictionary’s evolution he tussled with the OUP Delegates over the inclusion of ‘loanwords’ from American and other international versions of English (‘frontiersman’, for example, supplied by Francis Atkins, a New Mexico doctor), and he always viewed overtly nationalistic accounts of the OED’s purpose with suspicion. Murray aimed not just for completeness but to create a series of volumes that would record language as a living entity. As Ogilvie puts it, ‘the new Dictionary would trace the meaning of words across time and describe how people were actually using them.’ What mattered was not just the definitions but the quotations that showed how a word’s meaning grew and shifted with use. This was why Murray deployed his army of readers, sending them out into the world of print in order to catch language in the making.

The logistics that Murray and his readers inherited from Furnivall were, at first glance, simple. At the outset of the project the founders published an appeal for volunteers, who would be posted books if they had none and blank slips by the parcel load. Murray republished the appeal, sending it to newspapers and journals, schools, universities and clubs and societies all over Britain, America and the English-speaking world. The famous OED slips – 4 x 6 inch pieces of paper, some pre-filled with title and publication details – were to be completed by readers, whose task was to write down instances and examples of words in need of definition.

The results were haphazard, especially in terms of the words readers selected for inclusion. They were instructed to focus on ‘every word that strikes you as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way’. As a result they tended to avoid common words – prepositions, ordinary nouns – concentrating instead on more esoteric vocabulary, with the consequence that Murray and his small team of sub-editors often had to fill in definitions for the neglected words themselves. The slip system’s weakness in this respect was also its strength: its flexibility meant that words could be captured even when found in unconventional places. As Gilliver notes, for instance, both the first and the current edition of the OED contain a quotation taken from an 1887 label on a jar of sweets (‘Lemon pennets’). It was also egalitarian, enabling anyone with a good eye and time on their hands to contribute. An elite class of volunteers would arrange completed slips into bundles for pre-sorting (both by chronology and into senses of meaning), before Murray’s Scriptorium staff embarked on the business of turning slip bundles into referenced definitions.

Ogilvie herself started out as a dictionary person and was for years a lexicographer in the offices of the OED, where work continues today on the ever-evolving third edition. Her speciality was words originating from non-European languages – from Arabic (‘sugar’, ‘sofa’, ‘magazine’), Hindi (‘shampoo’, ‘chutney’, ‘bungalow’) or Nahuatl (‘chocolate’, ‘avocado’, ‘chilli’). In her 2012 ‘global history’ of the OED, Words of the World, she describes arriving as an Antipodean outsider who liked to write definitions barefoot and who, after having worked in the more relaxed environs of Australian dictionary-making, found the total silence that was the rule in the Oxford office a culture shock. Bare feet would always have been inappropriate: during freezing Oxford winters, Murray’s assistant editors resorted to wrapping their legs in newspaper in a vain attempt to keep out the cold that seeped through the iron walls of the Scriptorium.

Ogilvie is not the first OED lexicographer to have become fascinated by the history of the project; Gilliver’s book had a similar genesis. But she’s the first to take as her chief source Murray’s address books – which she found by accident in the OED’s basement archive – and to use them to uncover the identities of some of the thousands of volunteer readers without whom the dictionary could never have existed. The result is a panoramic account of 19th-century literary life. ‘Just who were these people?’ Simon Winchester asked in The Meaning of Everything, his 2003 account of the dictionary. Ogilvie follows the paper trail they left, which extends all over Britain, Europe and the Anglophone world.

She arranges her chapters, in lexicographical tradition, according to the letters of the alphabet. One chapter is on ‘O for Outsiders’. Perhaps because Murray himself never felt at home in the clubby world of Oxford, he drew his readers from circles much wider than those of the learned societies of the dictionary’s genesis. (The first person to use the word ‘outsider’, according to the OED, was Jane Austen, in a gossipy letter to her sister Cassandra detailing the presence one evening of ‘a whist & a casino table, & six outsiders’). Some of Murray’s readers were vicars and lawyers, teachers and clerks; but they were by no means all from the formally educated classes – the project appealed to amateurs and autodidacts too. He found readers in the most unexpected places. Three were patients in lunatic asylums. One of the most prolific contributors was a relative of Furnivall’s, William Douglas, described in the census as ‘Lunatic, Imbecile and Idiot’. Douglas made words relating to the body his subject of study. He had a particular interest in the brain and its workings, supplying slips for ‘amnesia’, ‘aphasic’ and ‘convolution’ (as in, each of the folds of the brain), as well as for ‘cineritious’ (its ash-colour) and for the names of the muscles that held the brain in place. There was nothing lunatic about this: it was a vocabulary of precision, with an idiolect designed to describe but not circumscribe the workings of the brain.

One reader, Fielding Blandford, attracted opprobrium when as the administrator of an asylum he connived in the kidnapping of a young woman, Edith Lanchester, who had been driven mad, or so her family believed, by ‘over-education’. Lanchester’s plight – disenfranchised, yet thoroughly surveilled – goes some way to explaining the enthusiasm of Murray’s 624 female volunteers. Reading Austen was the task of a subset of women contributors, and Murray valued them highly, but women did not contribute to the dictionary only as readers of novels. Because the work could be undertaken in domestic contexts – at parlour tables, or by firesides – it was achievable; reading for the OED licensed intellectual absorption in an era when middle-class daughters were expected to devote their time to ‘suitable’ pursuits. As a young woman in Calcutta, Margaret Murray contributed dozens of Indian-English words as well as definitions gleaned from her own favourite reading material, which included William Lisle’s edition of Aelfric’s Saxon Treatise concerning the Old and New Testaments. In later life she became a renowned Egyptologist and her writings were quoted in the dictionary.

To the outside world Mary Pringle was the model of a Victorian wife and mother, but every morning, after she had waved her husband off to work at the War Office, she went into her garden to measure the night’s rainfall via an eclectic range of homemade gauges. She then returned indoors to collect quotations for the dictionary from 17th-century biblical commentaries. (She appears in a chapter called ‘R for Rain Collectors’.) Her enthusiasms, recorded in Murray’s address book, provide a glimpse of the way clever Victorian women, barred from the worlds of education and work, sought alternative expressions of endeavour and community in work for the OED. Pringle’s story also reveals, in the sudden silence of its ending, other forms of female experience. In 1884 her son died, and overnight she stopped collecting both rain and words, fading back into history.

Bodies have a central role in Ogilvie’s book. One of the most famous of the ‘Dictionary People’ was Dr William Chester Minor, who contributed more than sixty thousand slips from the volumes he kept in a dedicated cell in Broadmoor, and who has been the subject of a book-length study, Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998). Minor was notorious both for his murder of a coal stoker and the violence he did himself in 1902. It was his work for the OED that enabled Minor to cut off his own penis – the knife he used was in his possession to enable him to cut open the pages of antiquarian books. The delusions that engulfed him were also related to books: he became convinced that the guards at Broadmoor were entering his library cell at night and tampering with his work. Ogilvie points out with some glee that Minor is one of three murderers to have contributed to the dictionary and the only one to have been convicted for his crime.

Bodies featured, too, in the contributions of Henry Spencer Ashbee, an enthusiastic supplier of scatological vocabulary drawn, Ogilvie surmises, from an enormous collection of pornography and erotica. ‘Infibulation’ (‘fastening the sexual organs with a clasp’) was one such offering; another was the self-explanatory definition of ‘devirgination’. He was one of three of Murray’s readers to scrutinise John Bulwer’s 1650 Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d, or, the Artificall Changling; between them they submitted more than a thousand slips dealing with words relating to sex and bodily mutilation. The second of the three was an unnamed American living in New Jersey, the third a woman from London. Ogilvie searches for the identity of this unnamed woman with the hunch that she might be a 'prim spinster' called Miss Jennett Humphreys, but is forced to concede that the handwriting on Humphreys’s slips is not a match.

Questions about the kinds of word that were and were not suitable for inclusion were a perennial source of conflict between Murray and the volunteers who had professional status in a particular field. James Dixon, a retired surgeon living in Surrey, vetoed the inclusion of ‘appendicitis’ because it was, he thought, a nonsense word (‘Surely you will not attempt to enter all the crack-jaw medical and surgical words. What do you think of “Dacryocystosyringoketokleitis”?’). Murray had reason to regret accepting Dixon’s advice when in 1902 the coronation of Edward VII was postponed because of the king’s appendicitis and the word could not be found in the already published ‘A’ volume of the OED. Dixon’s standards were variable: he was happy for Murray to include ‘cunt’ but drew the line at ‘cundum … a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap; also by others who wish to enjoy copulation without the possibility of impregnation’. He submitted this word in a sealed envelope, lest it disturb dictionary staff and readers with its inherent immorality. ‘I suppose Cundom or Quondam will be too utterly obscene for the Diction,’ he wrote. Murray agreed.

As much as he was able, though, Murray resisted attempts to reduce the kinds of words thought suitable for inclusion. The geographical spread of his contributors and the variety of political experiences and perspectives they brought to the curation of language made this task easier. Ogilvie uncovers the story of Anna Thorpe Wetherill, an anti-slavery activist who hid escaped enslaved people in her house in Philadelphia. Mrs Thorpe focused her efforts in the slips she sent to Oxford on recording the language of slavery, submitting definitions for ‘abhorrent’, ‘abolition’, ‘accursed’ and ‘attack’. Like Margaret Murray’s, her work ensured that the language of colonisation appeared in the dictionary not just as the lingua franca of jingoistic imperialism but shaded with the stories and the voices of the colonised. Ogilvie acknowledges that there are limits to the extent to which the OED can be read as a democratising project, not least since, as Murray’s example illustrates, those who submitted non-English loanwords were very rarely those whose language had been borrowed or curtailed. Nevertheless, in a narrative thread that builds on her work in Words of the World, Ogilvie complicates any history of the dictionary that describes its 20th-century editors as heroic decolonisers of an imperial Victorian project.

All histories of the OED have to grapple with questions of scale; its sprawling size and its translation from grand idea into a series of volumes. The numbers are giddying – millions of slips in the Scriptorium, thousands of contributors, decades of missed deadlines, budget crises in which initial estimates turned out to be wrong by orders of magnitude that involved additional columns in account books. Individual stories offer one way through the thicket of words and numbers; another route entails breaking down how Murray and his inner circle arrived at a definition once the requisite slips were assembled. Ogilvie illustrates this process by working through the 322 slips of quotations for the verb ‘to drive’. A sub-editor called John Dormer was charged with this particular definition: he was one of a prized set of contributors who were entrusted with definition writing as well as slip completion. (Dormer was another of the ‘Dictionary People’ who spent a period in a lunatic asylum, after a combination of pressure of work and bereavement caused a breakdown.)

Faced with quotations from sources as varied as Shelley’s Queen Mab (‘Religion drives his wife raving mad’), Frederick Robinson’s Coward Conscience (‘It’s enough to drive one out of his senses’) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (‘A strange hand about me would drive me absolutely frantic’), Dormer had to work out, Ogilvie explains, whether or not these quotations were examples of the same sense of the verb.

They are, but two of them form a subsense of the other. The Robinson quotation demonstrates the sense of ‘to impel, force, or bring forcibly into some state or condition’. The other two also mean this, but if Dormer were able to hold these quotations in his memory while looking through the 319 others, he would recognise a pattern: this particular sense of ‘drive’ always occurs with an adjectival complement, ‘absolutely frantic’ and ‘raving mad’, requiring the first and third quotation to be grouped together into their own subsense.

This passage illustrates why the most illuminating histories of the OED have been written by those, like Ogilvie, who understand what it is to labour at a definition.

Those who prefer research methods to be buried may find Ogilvie’s habit of making explicit her archival travails frustrating, but it’s fascinating watching her track the contributors down. Her narrative ends as she travels back to Australia to meet Chris Collier, who merits the ‘unsung hero’ epithet of the book’s subtitle. Collier was a naturist and an avid contributor of quotations to the OED until his death in 2010. It is thanks to him that the Brisbane Courier-Mail has a substantial presence in the third edition of the OED, and to him it owes quotations for ‘sickie’, ‘petrolhead’ and, as a definition for someone who experiences a significant change of lifestyle, ‘sea changer’. Ogilvie writes that she tried to persuade Collier to visit the OED offices in Oxford in order that his contribution might be honoured. ‘No way,’ was the response. ‘Imagine the Courier-Mails waiting for me on my return.’

The story of Murray’s OED ends in 1928, thirteen years after Murray himself died, at a grand dinner at Goldsmiths’ Hall staged to celebrate the publication of the final volume of the first edition. Few of the contributors whose stories Ogilvie traces were present, not least because women were barred from the gathering by the rules of the Goldsmiths’ Company, forcing one reader and two editorial assistants – Edith Thomason, Eleanor Bradley and Murray’s daughter Rosfrith – to watch proceedings from the balcony. This gathering of famous men represented the institutional, national side of the OED’s story, rather than its haphazard crowdsourced history. Speeches from the dinner were broadcast live on BBC radio; the Times proclaimed that 1928, ‘whatever else it may be, is the Year of the Dictionary’. The Bodleian mounted a celebratory exhibition; in America sales were so brisk that OUP’s New York office scrambled to keep up. Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, attended the Goldsmiths’ dinner; George V and President Calvin Coolidge received copies at ceremonial presentations.

Most of the dictionary’s readers, meanwhile, tuned into their wirelesses to hear the speeches in praise of the book they had made, or read about its reception in the newspapers from which they might well have assembled slips. Murray knew that it was these people – his loyal correspondents – who made the words in his dictionary come to life. Just occasionally he paused from his own work in the Scriptorium to acknowledge their labours. When his Indian languages specialist Edward Brandreth died, having spent countless hours in the British Museum tracking down entries for 35 separate lists of desiderata, Murray wrote of the debt he had incurred over their long collaboration. ‘Among the many volunteers whose work has contributed to making the New English Dictionary what it is, not many have had the capacity and qualifications, the willinghood, and the time to work for it as our honoured friend has done. May his name never be forgotten when the story is told.’

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Vol. 45 No. 24 · 14 December 2023

Daisy Hay writes about James Murray and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (LRB, 19 October). My grandfather Leonard James Spencer was a devoted contributor of words (geological) to the dictionary. I inherited his set and brought it with me to Vancouver in the early 1970s. Gwyneth Logan, Murray’s youngest daughter, lived nearby. She told us that the OED had been a constant presence in her childhood since she earned her pocket money by sorting the newly arrived slips into alphabetically ordered baskets. She was paid, as I recall, a farthing a slip.

Roderick J. Barman
Vancouver, British Columbia

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