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.

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