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Book review: The Dictionary People: The unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie

24 November 2023

Jeremy Marshall reads about eccentrics in an editor’s address book

AWIDE readership persists not only for books about words, but for books about books about words. Sarah Ogilvie’s book is an engaging addition to the shelf, investigating the original compilation of The Oxford English Dictionary as a pioneering exercise in international crowdsourcing.

She focuses on the volunteers around the British Empire, the United States, and beyond who, from the 1850s to the 1920s, responded to the dictionary’s call for readers, jotting excerpts on slips of paper (roughly six inches by four) and sending them to Oxford as raw material for the lexicographers. Her primary source is the address book of the chief editor, James Murray, unearthed from the Oxford University Press archive, which, alongside names and addresses, carefully details the industry (or indolence) of his thousands of readers and advisers.

Among this vast company, the spotlight naturally falls on the most picturesque, the most disreputable, and the most downright peculiar. The author is keen to illustrate the diversity of contributors around the world, including those otherwise marginalised by prejudice of sex, class, or nationality. Not all are unsung: many will know of Dr Minor, reading diligently in his cell at Broadmoor, and some, such as the archaeologist Margaret Murray and the novelist Charlotte M. Yonge, are well known in other spheres.

Nevertheless, the 26 chapters (from A for Archaeologist to Z for Zealots) feature a kaleidoscopic array of characters — an Arctic explorer, a pair of lesbian poets, a missionary among gold-diggers in New Zealand, a collector of erotica — gleefully following serpentine trails into the furthest reaches of Victorian and Edwardian society.

Dr Ogilvie does not write as a dispassionate academic historian. She is a constant presence in her own text, from the moment when she blows into the dusty OUP archives until her final return to Brisbane to meet a modern (and, inevitably, eccentric) contributor to the ongoing Dictionary project. (Perhaps I should remark that not all dictionary people are weird: many quotations from the Church Times were provided by the late Alan Hughes, a fairly uneccentric science editor at the dictionary department.)

Often, in recounting her detective endeavours, she describes the dead-ends and blind leads that frustrate the historical researcher, or flavours her narrative with speculations and imaginative reconstructions, which the reader may find enlightening or annoying according to taste.

Overall, the book is a captivating exploration of some of the extraordinary individuals who helped to produce the monument that is the OED.

Dr Jeremy Marshall is a lexicographical consultant based in Cheltenham


The Dictionary People: The unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary
Sarah Ogilvie
Chatto & Windus £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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