Lexicographical mountaineers

by
25 November 2016

Pat Ashworth on the OED’s heroes and their slips of paper

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Peter Gilliver
OUP £40 (978-0-19-928362-0)
Church Times Bookshop £36

 

 

AS A lexicographer himself, who has worked on The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for 30 years, Peter Gilliver is uniquely placed to do what he describes as inhabiting the minds of his predecessors. He does it beautifully in this scholarly, detailed work of almost 600 pages: an illustration of the richness, com­plex­­­ity, and volume of the English language, and a fascinating insight into the scale and conflicting de­­mands of the task.

The real work of the dictionary began in 1879. Editing had reached “al-” by 1880, when the editor, James Murray, was corresponding with a botanist about “amaranthus” and “ambrosia”, and appealing for information about “ammunition”. By 1881, even completing the letter A seemed “an uncomfortably re-
mote prospect”. The early lexico­graphers were perpetually under­staffed, and always under impossible pressure to get the next part of the dictionary out so that public confidence would be sustained.

The work of the lexicographer is to survey the available data about how a word has been used over time, and distil this into a historical account. But take even a simple word such as “black”. The last of its derivatives had taken an experi­enced sub-editor four months’ work. The story resides in the hu­­man detail of this book, not least in how the volumes of quotations and unedited materials were housed — illustrated here in the instruction that accompanied their transfer from Frederick Furnivall’s over­flowing house in Primrose Hill to Dr Murray’s garden-shed scrip­torium in Mill Hill.

”You shd have all the A slips pickt out first — they’re in packets, except such as are in the 2 or 3 G[eorge] Eliot packets, whose slips want written catchwords. […] Subeditors’ work of D,E,O Ra and S are in packets(D.), bag (E.), boxes, O (?Hamper). Ra.S.S. is probably not sorted, & is a heavy letter. […] Some of the outer slips have got torn, &’ll need mending. You’ve probably laid in a supply of gum.”

The dictionary was finally pub­lished in 1928. The embattled Murray, who had been editor from the start and who saw his work as a God-given vocation, had died in 1915, his last handwritten entry the word “Twilight”. The succeeding years brought huge advances in equipment and techniques, but, as Gilliver points out, the essence of the job remains the same. Paper slips remain the principal stock-in-trade of historical lexicography.

This is a riveting read that could absorb the whole of Christmas.

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