The Oxford English Dictionary has a reputation for being the definitive record of the English language. But a few years ago, it was discovered that former OED editor Robert Burchfield had inexplicably struck thousands of words from the record, most of them Americanisms. Lexicographer and OED editor emeritus Sarah Ogilvie talks with Bob about Burchfield and her new book, Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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BOB GARFIELD: Last month, Lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie came out with a book about the history of the famed Oxford English Dictionary. It caused a surprising stir because the OED, the world's largest dictionary, claims to be what no other has ever claimed to be: a comprehensive compendium of English. Ogilvie’s findings grabbed headlines because they raised a question that cast doubt on the sanctity of the OED. The question was, did longtime OED Editor Robert Burchfield, a native New Zealander and its first non-British editor, betray the spirit of the dictionary by unilaterally deleting thousands of words he deemed too ephemeral or not English enough for inclusion? Ogilvie who, for two decades did editorial work for the OED, says the dictionary, launched in 1857, had a sweeping mandate.
SARAH OGILVIE: To describe the English language from its first evidence in writing in the 12th century until the current day. They originally thought that it might take about 10 or 12 years. In fact, it was not until 1928 that the dictionary was finally finished. And then in 1933, they published another volume called the 1933 Supplement.
BOB GARFIELD: Enter Robert Burchfield. Tell me when he came on the scene.
SARAH OGILVIE: Robert Burchfield came to Oxford from New Zealand in the 1950s. He was a Rhodes scholar. He was chief editor until 1986. Burchfield wrote four supplement volumes that, in fact, were based on the 1933 Supplement. It took him about 30 years. It was then, of course, combined with the First Edition to form the Second Edition, which came out in 1989.
BOB GARFIELD: His OED actually deleted words that had been in the original.
SARAH OGILVIE: Yes, I was very surprised to discover this. In the 1970s, Robert Burchfield had told media and scholars that he was, for the first time, opening up the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary to words from outside Britain because he said the earlier editors treated them as though they were illegal immigrants. And then when I came to work on the dictionary myself, I observed that there were actually words in the 1933 Supplement which Burchfield had not included. I duly wrote this up, and the editors of the current dictionary on now putting them in to the Third Edition.
BOB GARFIELD: Can give me an example of the foreign words that Burchfield expurgated?
SARAH OGILVIE: Words which they thought were British that, in fact, were originally American, such as “chestnutting,” meaning the gathering of chestnuts and Americanisms, such as “chancer,” a verb meaning to tax. Eighty percent of them were Americanisms and twenty percent words that are borrowed into English from other languages. Burchfield deleted 17% of the world Englishes and loan words in the 1933 Supplement.
BOB GARFIELD: So even though Burchfield claimed to be inclusionist, it appears that he was kind of a closet “lexizenophobic.” SARAH OGILVIE: We don’t know why he excluded these words. It is important that the current editors are putting them back in, but the whole point of my book is not so much to criticize Burchfield, but to draw attention to the fact that those words were in that 1933 Supplement, in the first place. The way that we’ve thought about the earlier editors as being these Anglo-centric Oxford dons who deliberately kept out foreign words, that is simply not true. Not only did the early editors include these words, but earlier editors were being pressured to exclude these words to keep English pure.
BOB GARFIELD: What was at stake here? Absent your research, would these words that he deleted have somehow been lost forever?
SARAH OGILVIE: Yes, I think just as these words do not appear in the Second Edition of the dictionary, they may well have never appeared in any future edition either.
BOB GARFIELD: And then what is the loss to the world, if we’ve lost access to the word “chancer,” for example?
SARAH OGILVIE: The whole beauty of the Oxford English Dictionary is that it describes every word that has occurred in the English language, even if it might be an obsolete word from the 16th century. There are still scholars who might be reading a book from the 16th century and want to look up the meaning of that particular word. The editors of the 1933 Supplement who, I might say, were also editors on the First Edition, clearly felt that all of these words have a place in the dictionary. I think that they would have been disappointed if they were aware that all the work that they put in in 1933 was not included 50 years later.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH OGILVIE: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Ogilvie, who spent more than 20 years working for Oxford Dictionaries, is the author of Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Her book is due out in the United States at the end of the month.