The Man Who Stole Thousands of Words from the Oxford English Dictionary

alex atkins bookshelf wordsSince the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains about 171,476, who is going to notice if a few hundred, or even a few thousand words are missing? Yes, of course, if you are a lexicographer or a dedicated word lover. Several years ago, Sarah Ogilvie, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), began research for her book, Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary (2012), and discovered that a former editor, Robert Burchfield (1923-2004), deleted more than 17% of English words with foreign origins — words like balisaur, boviander, and calabazilla. In the priggish world of lexicography, this amounts to the linguistic crime of the century. Ogilvie was stunned at this discovery: “This is really shocking. If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves… If a word was used in an English context it qualified as an English word. After all, from the OED’s beginnings, it was considered to be a dictionary of the English language, not merely a dictionary written by and for the people of England.” But tell that to Burchfield…

English grows so rapidly, particularly in the global community of the internet, because it borrows (perhaps even steals) rather liberally from other languages. Many of these words are so ingrained in the English lexicon that speakers don’t give a moment’s thought to where a word originated. Here are some common words and their language of origin: alarm (Italian), anonymous (Greek), cartoon (Italian), cigar (Spanish), cookie (Dutch), ketchup (Chinese), lemon (Arabic), muscle (Latin), night (German), penguin (Welsh), slogan (Celtic), and wanderlust (German). So why did Burchfield remove these types of words from the dictionary? Ogilvie believes that Burchfield was attempting to preserve “a highly exclusive form of ‘the Queen’s English.'” Moreover, Ogilvie believes that perhaps the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, as Burchfield was responding to some of the criticism that the first OED editor, James Murray, received for including many words with foreign origins. Finally, Ogilvie points to Burchfield’s self-professed whims. His obituary in the Telegraph included this quote from Burchfield as he described the English language as “a monster accordion, stretchable at the whim of the editor, compressible ad lib.” (Incidentally, Burchfield also evoked outrage when he largely rewrote the classic bible of grammar, Fowler’s Modern English Usage. But that is a story for another time…)

When the linguistic crime was first reported, the OED staff was alarmed, but quickly issued a defense of Bruchfield’s work. A spokesman stated “[Burchfield] was insistent that the dictionary should expand its coverage of international words in English and, although he omitted minor terms [and] added many thousands of more fully researched international entries.” The staff of the OED also agreed to re-evaluate all the words that were left out of the dictionary. Finally, justice for all those words that were untimely ripped from the pages of the venerable OED.

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Read related posts: How Long Does It Take To Read Every Word in the Dictionary?
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
How Many Words Does the Average Person Speak in a Lifetime?

How Many Books Does the Average American Read?

For further reading: Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie

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