The Case of the Missing O.E.D. Words

November 28, 2012 - The New Yorker - Posted by
The very first part of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884 and covering the range from A to Ant, did not include the word “African.” It did, however, include “American.” One might conclude from this evidence that the O.E.D., generally written by and for Victorian gentlemen, was biased against Africans.

But the real reason “African” was left out was rather different, and much less nefarious: James Murray, the dictionary’s first editor, made an early editorial decision that the O.E.D. would not include any proper nouns—this was regarded as the province of the encyclopedia, not the dictionary—and that words formed from proper nouns would likewise be excluded. This was a poor policy, which was quickly rescinded: “American” was duly entered when editorial work progressed deeper into the letter A, but by then it was too late to make changes in the “af-” section. It wasn’t until 1933, when Oxford University Press published “The Oxford English Dictionary: Being a Corrected Re-issue with an Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography of a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” (now referred to as the “1933 Supplement”), that this omission was rectified.

The linguist Sarah Ogilvie, a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre who herself worked as an editor for the O.E.D., has gained considerable attention for her new book, “Words of the World: The Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary.” An article about the book in the Guardian—excerpted on Gawker and many other places, and widely retweeted—highlighted the claim that Robert Burchfield, the editor of the four-volume “Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary” published from 1972 to 1986, “covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins.”

This claim is completely bogus.

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