At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?

Henry Hitchings

  • Words 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.

Dixon was also exercised by the language of surgery. ‘If you insist upon surgical terms,’ he wrote to Murray, ‘I will send them.’ Murray did insist, but Dixon sometimes got his way. When the second fascicle of the OED came out in the summer of 1885, it did not include appendicitis. The word was not then well known, and Dixon had argued in correspondence with Murray that it was nothing better than ‘crack-jaw’ jargon. The aversion to jargon endures: it stems from a desire to prevent obscurity, and from a suspicion that any activity that calls for fancy terminology is the workaday masquerading as expensive specialism. But it wasn’t long before the absence of appendicitis came to seem embarrassing: in 1902 Edward VII’s coronation was delayed because he was suffering from appendicitis, and the word was suddenly everywhere. Again, the OED was unable to accommodate the term until 1933.

From its beginnings, the OED relied on the perseverance of volunteers. Their main contribution was an immense amount of reading. It was clear that improving on the OED’s predecessors would mean drawing on an unprecedentedly broad range of sources to find quotations to illustrate words in use, and that a close reading of those sources would be possible only if the labour was widely apportioned. Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet and from 1859 to 1861 the OED’s first editor, was optimistic about the speed with which this could be achieved. He took the lead in drawing up the list of books to be examined, a compendious rather than copious selection ranging from the 13th century to Ruskin’s Modern Painters. Each was assigned to one of the 147 readers who had undertaken to send in quotations – transcrib-ed or pasted onto half-sheets of writing paper – that would serve to illustrate ordinary words significantly, or to illustrate words or senses that seemed new, strange or obsolete.

It was all rather haphazard. Frederick Furnivall, who became editor in 1861 after Coleridge’s premature death, complained that no one had provided a single quotation to illustrate the word imaginable. He was appalled by the ‘incredible gaps’ in the material collected: ‘When will the disgraceful apathy of our cultured and moneyed classes in this matter be shaken off!’ There were many volunteers who had begun with enthusiasm but lost interest, and it was hard to find takers for some areas. In 1859 responsibility for 18th-century literature was passed to an American subcommittee overseen by the environmentalist and diplomat George Perkins Marsh, apparently because readers in Britain didn’t care for many of the authors that needed to be read. Marsh was also put in charge of collating slips for words beginning with H. In 1861, Lincoln sent him to Italy as US ambassador and the papers went with him. But as his eyesight deteriorated his capacity for finicky work diminished, and he left the slips behind at his villa in Tuscany.

When Murray took over the editorship from Furnivall in 1879, he worried that not enough attention was being paid to more prosaic English vocabulary. Some ‘ordinary words’, he complained, were ‘most meagrely present’: ‘Thus of abusion, we found in the slips about fifty instances: of abuse, not five.’ He issued an appeal for help, along with a ‘list of books for which readers are wanted’: the Paston letters, Sidney’s Arcadia, Hobbes’s Leviathan and a multitude of 18th-century works (‘The literature of this century has hardly been touched. Readers are safe with almost any 18th-century book they can lay their hands on’). A year later Murray was able to report to the Philological Society that there were now 754 volunteer readers; he soon had 12 in-house editorial assistants and 30 subeditors striving to differentiate meanings and prepare definitions from the illustrative quotations the volunteers supplied. By 1881, the readers had sent in 656,900 quotations from roughly 4500 works by 2700 authors. But the approach to selecting quotations was still not wholly systematic, and the balance of material was skewed. The OED has long drawn negative comment – some of it exaggerated – for its heavy reliance on literary sources. Its early editors’ tastes were apparent in the canon of authors whose works are quoted most heavily: after Shakespeare, Walter Scott was the author most often cited.

Dictionaries are never untouched by ideology. But it can be hard to distinguish between pragmatic choices and political ones, oversights and deliberate exclusions, accidental omissions and the effects of covert strategy. In Words of the World, billed as ‘A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary’, Sarah Ogilvie tries to identify the moment when, she believes, covert strategy came into play. Formerly director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre and now employed by Amazon, Ogilvie also worked at the OED, where she specialised in writing or refining entries for words borrowed into English from other languages. She argues that rather than being ‘a distinctly English product’ – it was once voted an ‘Icon of England’ along with Marmite, Buckingham Palace and the bowler hat – the OED was from its early days an international enterprise. It’s true that Richard Chenevix Trench, who in 1857 proposed the creation of the work that would become the OED, initially argued against the inclusion of what he called ‘hideous exotics’. But before long that view softened. Herbert Coleridge declared that ‘Every word should be made to tell its own story’ – a motto Ogilvie pinned above her desk – and the rule became to include as much as possible. Instrumental in this change was Furnivall, whose motto was more explicitly catholic: ‘Fling our doors wide!’

This principle was espoused by Murray, whose network of readers spanned the globe. In 1884 he wrote of their being ‘pioneers, pushing … experimentally through an untrodden forest, where no white man’s axe has been before us’, a phrasing that conjures an image of Victorian enthusiasts plundering foreign riches. (Ogilvie says it is beyond the scope of her book ‘to assess whether the OED was an imperial project or not’.) Murray’s aim was inclusiveness – attributable in part to his perception of his own marginal status in Oxford, and especially within the university. When he asked members of the Philological Society, ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, he drew criticism for his unwillingness to provide an exact answer. One reason for not doing so was his awareness that the British Empire was expanding. Murray and his paymasters differed on the question of how this should be recognised. When the first fascicle circulated in draft, he was urged by the delegates of Oxford University Press to drop entries for loanwords such as aardvark and abaca (a kind of banana plant or the fibre it yields); despite the pressure to work faster, strive for economy and include less ‘fringe’ vocabulary, he argued for their retention.

He could be positively territorial about the OED’s coverage of loanwords and of examples of English from beyond Britain. This was apparent in his rivalry with Charles Fennell, who compiled the Stanford Dictionary of Anglicised Words and Phrases, published by Cambridge University Press in 1892. Fennell’s dictionary did not represent formidable competition. Since Samuel Johnson’s effort in the 1750s, there had been only three important dictionaries of English, by the Tulse Hill philologist Charles Richardson, and by the Americans Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester. The OED was a work on a completely different scale which paid far more attention to polysemy and obsolete words. But volumes such as Fennell’s threatened to make the progress of the OED seem sluggish, and Murray resented this. He alleged that Fennell had plagiarised material from the OED’s early fascicles and that once the Stanford Dictionary moved on to those parts of the word stock not yet covered by the OED it was ‘disappointingly poor’ – in some cases ‘utterly puerile’.

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The question of how best to cover the language’s fringes persists, though the very notions of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ are contentious in a way that they were not when the first edition of the OED was being made. There terms ‘alien or not yet naturalised’ were marked with the symbol || to the left of the headword. Murray’s successors William Craigie and Charles Onions tussled over whether to maintain this practice. Proofs of the Supplement dated 11 September 1929 retain Murray’s so-called tramlines; in the next proofs, dated 2 July 1930, they are gone. Between these dates, Onions joined the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English, where he became acutely aware of the prejudices that led some people to stigmatise new or imported terms; tramlines, he felt, didn’t help. But when the next Supplement was published, between 1972 and 1986, the tramlines were back, in many cases appearing alongside headwords that had been printed without them in the 1933 Supplement. This was the decision of the new Supplement’s chief editor, Robert Burchfield. Ogilvie criticises Burchfield, and her book has caused some fuss on account of its supposed allegation that he surreptitiously deleted words of foreign origin from the OED. She contends that by bringing back the tramlines Burchfield was assigning such words ‘a new “alien” status’. When we look at some of the words Ogilvie identifies as suffering in this way, we may feel a little sympathetic to Burchfield: was it so strange for him to apply this most discreet of labels to sambal, the name of a Malay condiment, or kuruma, a Japanese word for a rickshaw?

Burchfield arrived in Oxford from New Zealand in 1949 and died in 2004. A medievalist, his specialist subject was originally the Ormulum, a long 12th-century poem. When appointed in 1957 to edit a single-volume supplement to the OED, he was expected to bring coverage up to date, which meant including more scientific and technical terms, taking a less prim approach to coarse and profane language, improving the entries for the most common words and more fully documenting the vocabulary of Englishes around the world. The scale of the undertaking exceeded expectation, as it always does where dictionaries are concerned. The four volumes he eventually produced absorbed large parts of the 1933 Supplement, but they also left some things out. Ogilvie bases her assessment on a study of 6937 entries in Burchfield’s Supplement and 2427 in the 1933 Supplement – that is, 10 per cent of each. She calculates that Burchfield got rid of 16.6 per cent of the neologisms, adaptations and loanwords in her chosen sample of the 1933 Supplement, leading her to conclude that he ‘deleted 17 per cent of all World Englishes and loanwords in the 1933 Supplement’.

Clearly Burchfield left material out of his Supplement that might have been included. But Ogilvie puts it rather strongly when she says that he ‘banished words from around the world that had previously earned a rightful place in the lexicographic canon.’ What sorts of word does she have in mind? The list she provides includes dajaksch, a type of arrow poison used in Borneo; igloowik, an Inuit word for a particular kind of igloo; and tacuacine, the name of a crab-eating opossum found in parts of South America. Searching old books for instances of these words, I was struck that every reference I could find in an English text to a tacuacine or a dajaksch explains what it is rather than using the word unglossed. I could find igloowik only in two places: Patrick William Browne’s 1909 history of Labrador and the 1933 Supplement. In ‘deleting’ these items (‘dropping’ might be nearer the mark), was Burchfield banishing words that had earned a rightful place in the OED or was he simply removing ones that had never merited inclusion?

We get an idea of what he thought he was doing from his description of the 1933 Supplement as a ‘riffraff assemblage of casual items, in no way worthy of the magnificent monument to which it formed an extension’. Faced with the pressures – financial, temporal, logistical – that all editors abide, he made the sorts of decision to which editors are inclined. Printed dictionaries, even very big ones, suffer from space constraints. (In the first edition of the OED the total number of entries, including nested compounds and phrases, was 509,960; in the second edition the figure rose to 562,550; when the third appears, the figure may be close to 800,000.) To keep the Supplement from becoming unwieldy Burchfield could only use his judgment. ‘We have kept constantly before us the opposing concepts of permanence and ephemerality,’ he wrote in his preface to its first volume. It was necessary to retain vocabulary ‘likely to be of interest now and to future generations’ and to discard ‘those words, phrases and senses that seemed transitory or too narrowly restricted in currency’. Determining what is likely to be of interest to future generations is always going to be difficult. Although for the most part Burchfield’s divination was adept, the Supplement did have limitations. Was it really helpful to have four quotations to illustrate Weetabix? Why, given the explanation of Wolves as a colloquial name for Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, was there no mention of Spurs? Among the broader problems were inconsistency in dealing with ‘erroneous or catachrestic’ usage and imbalances in the coverage of specialist subjects; in her book Treasure-House of the Language: The Living ‘OED’ (2007), Charlotte Brewer discusses the latter, noting that philately and pottery are more patchily represented than surfing and cricket.

For the most part reviewers of the Supplement were quick to praise its treatment of World Englishes. But Ogilvie is right to question the common image of Burchfield as an agent of lexicographic redress, mostly because the ‘bold forays into the written English of regions outside the British Isles’ he spoke of began much earlier, with Murray. Burchfield is responsible for shaping the standard account of Murray’s editorship, an account that underestimates the breadth of his interests and erudition. He wrote Murray’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography: ‘He had not given sufficient attention to the English used outside the British Isles, whereas since the 1972-86 supplement the OED has attempted to cover the language as it is written and spoken throughout the world.’ At a symposium in Washington in 1986 Burchfield asserted that ‘for the most part Murray preferred to fend off overseas words until they had become firmly entrenched in British use.’ Burchfield wanted people to understand that on his watch the OED had broken with his predecessors’ ‘very British English’ and moved towards an enlightened pluralism – ‘I pursued … a slightly rebellious policy,’ he said in a radio interview that same year. Ogilvie describes such statements as ‘self-promotion’. ‘This is not to ascribe mendacity to Burchfield,’ she insists, yet ‘his claims for what he had done … simply were not true.’ She is not accusing him of what the OED defines as ‘the tendency or disposition to lie or deceive’, but of something closer to self-delusion.

An alternative interpretation would be that Burchfield was doing what lexicographers invariably do, talking up the efforts that had gone into the production of a vast work that, from the moment of its publication, would inevitably be criticised by experts, aggrieved non-specialists and journalists looking to rustle up an article. Lexicography has its own psychological climate. Dictionaries are made through the accumulation of small fragments. Much of the task is menial. There is scope for skill and imagination, but lexicographers are mostly realistic about their slender chances of getting credit for their poetry or their tact.

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Until recently the process of making dictionaries was a manual one, which created innumerable little opportunities for idiosyncrasy – whether unwitting or deliberate. Computers began to play a part in the 1960s, when Laurence Urdang created an electronic database to help make the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. The following decade saw the first use of computerised systems for sorting dictionary entries, and in the 1980s the first dictionaries based on the analysis of electronic corpora appeared. The last important dictionary to be assembled entirely by hand was probably the 20th edition (1984) of the Diccionario de la lengua española. Compiling a substantial dictionary is now unthinkable without computers, and increasingly it is via computer that dictionaries are consulted. The third edition of the OED, which will not be completed for another 15 years or more, is unlikely to appear in print.

Meanwhile the OED’s online version, launched in 2000, affords access to the latest revisions. It is searchable in ways that the printed text clearly is not. This incarnation of the OED makes use of material unavailable to the work’s Victorian progenitors, including diaries, letters, wills and inventories – especially useful in augmenting our picture of the vocabulary of the early modern period. Definitions and etymologies have been revised, and new sources found, leading to some significant antedatings. For many words currently in use, there are illustrative quotations from 20th and 21st-century sources where previously the documentation stopped in the 19th century. The present editor, John Simpson, explains that in some cases ‘quotations formerly published in the Dictionary have been silently omitted.’ This could be construed as censorship or ‘deletion’, but plainly it is being done in the interests of balance. No dictionary can be truly comprehensive, and choices still have to be made. Simpson describes the OED as ‘a convenient guide to the history and meaning of the words of the English language, rather than … [an] exhaustive listing of every possible nuance’. That may seem modest, but the salient word here is ‘convenient’: dictionaries are designed to be used. They all bear traces of editorial pragmatism and conversations now forgotten.