In the Beginning Were the Word Nerds

THE DICTIONARY PEOPLE: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary,by Sarah Ogilvie

According to the Oxford English Dictionarythe earliest known person to mention a sponge cake in writing was Jane Austen. Austen is also our earliest source for “doorbell,” not to mention “sprawly,” “fragmented” and “irrepressible.”

When the O.E.D. was conceived in 1857, the proposal that started the ball rolling declared that it should be “an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view.” Unlike its predecessors, the new dictionary should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, including all the words of the language, current and archaic, highblown and vulgar. Moreover, it should trace their shifting meanings over the centuries, and always — crucially — support its assertions with the evidence of published quotations.

But how to do this? To find, for every word in English, its earliest appearance along with the moments when it branches into a new sense? An editor was appointed and a list of likely texts for inspection drawn up, but the real work had yet to be assigned. Ahead lay millions of hours of reading and mulling, logging any word that seemed unusual or used in a distinctive way.

For this, the general public would be enlisted: The O.E.D. would be a crowdsourced project. Appeals were issued far and wide, with The New York Times remarking wryly that readers with “any superfluity of words about them” should contact the British Philological Society.

In fact, those who volunteered to read for the new dictionary would be given somewhat clearer guidance, particularly when responsibility for the project passed to the greatest and longest-serving of the Dictionary’s editors, an irrepressible autodidact by the name of James Murray.

Potential contributors were asked to “make a quotation for every word that strikes you as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way.” Each should be written out on its own paper slip, 6 by 4 inches or a half-sheet of notepaper, along with the text (plus date and edition) in which the quotation appeared. All slips should be returned to Murray and his sub-editors working from their “Scriptorium,” an ice-cold shed in the back garden of Murray’s house on the outskirts of Oxford.

This was a perfectly sensible plan until things turned sprawly. When Murray took the reins in 1879 he estimated that the O.E.D. would be completed within a decade. He was off by 40 years. Murray would not see further than the letter “T,” expiring as he did on a summer’s day in 1915, soon after writing his last definition, “twilight.”

In 1928, at a dinner to celebrate the work’s completion, prime minister Stanley Baldwin began his oration by running through the O.E.D.’s vital statistics: its 15,000 pages, its 178 miles of type, its 400,000 main entries supported by two million illustrative quotations. “Perhaps before I begin, I may make a confession,” he deadpanned. “I have not read it.”

Now Sarah Ogilvie has provided a sprightly, elegant tribute to the ordinary readers — the “word nerds” — who made up the bulk of the O.E.D.’s work force, largely unpaid and unsung, filling in millions of slips in their spare time.

The germ of Ogilvie’s book lies in a discovery she made when about to leave her job working on the dictionary itself: Murray’s address book, lying unexamined in the basement archive of the Oxford University Press. “The Dictionary People,” then, is the result of following up these leads, digging into the lives of Murray’s volunteer army.

Readers of Simon Winchester’s 1998 best seller “The Professor and the Madman” will remember the fragile, fragmented consciousness of William Chester Minor, one of Murray’s most prolific contributors, who was also a long-term inmate at Broadmoor asylum — having killed a man, likely while suffering paranoid delusions. Here Ogilvie uncovers at least two other murderers lurking in Murray’s address book. There are also a pornographer, an incestuous aunt-niece couple, a drug addict and an arctic explorer, not to mention readers trapped by limited horizons for whom the possibility of contributing to such a grand enterprise offered a lifeline.

The overall picture we get from Ogilvie’s engrossing survey is of “amateurs collaborating alongside the academic elite,” of a scholarly work force that spread far beyond the stolid, bearded men of Oxford. About one in six — far more than was previously thought — were women.

Some readers were obsessive, sending in tens of thousands of quotations; others found their initial enthusiasm waning and failed to return any slips once the books arrived. Alongside their names, Murray would scribble a stentorian “Hopeless” or “Impostor” or “No Good.”

Ogilvie arranges her potted biographies, appropriately, into 26 alphabetically-ordered chapters running from “Archaeologist” to “Zealots.” Under “Hopeless Contributors” we find Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, who misunderstood her task and spent several weeks in the British Museum combing through existing dictionaries, only to be informed by an exasperated Murray that he was already fully aware of the 144 unusual words she had proposed.

But Marx’s experience with the Dictionary was only a minor episode in a short, sad life, and Ogilvie fills us in on the rest: the thwarted acting ambitions, the activism, the translations of Ibsen and Flaubert, the rascally lover and death by suicide at the age of 43. In Ogilvie’s words, “by the end of her life, her Dictionary debacle was long forgotten,” and in a way this is the main problem of this lively and entertaining book. For many of these so-called “Dictionary People,” the O.E.D. was little more than a footnote in their lives, meaning that often these stories stray far from the book’s central topic.

Or maybe this is the real point: that the lives of the dictionarians were more diverse than we might have imagined simply because every life, when you look closely, has multiple facets, unfolds over multiple acts. The real joy of “The Dictionary People” is to be reminded that any group of people pinned at its intersection will still burst forth every which way, a tapestry of contradictions, noble and ignoble, wild and banal. In the lives of these uneminent Victorians, Ogilvie has shown us that humanity, even for word nerds, is always — as Jane Austen might put it — sprawly, fragmented and irrepressible.

THE DICTIONARY PEOPLE: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary |By Sarah Ogilvie | Illustrated | 372 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30

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