Oxford English Dictionary Goes Native

by Translation Guy on November 30, 2012

Shocking allegations by author Sarah Ogilvie, a linguist and lexicographer, who claims that the Oxford English dictionary has been secretly rigged for decades to exclude English words of dubious foreign extraction.

The conventional wisdom was that such tainted loanwords had been excluded right from the start in 1884 by uptight Anglocentric Oxford dons obsessed with preserving ye olde English. Everyone thought it was the redoubtable editor Robert Burchfield, who in four supplements published from 1972 to 1986, opened up the ivy-walled quadrangles of the OED to all the words used in English, regardless of class or ethnicity.

But in her new book, Words of the World, Ogilvie’s research revealed a switcheroo 50 years old. “I observed the pattern that actually it was the earlier editors who were dealing with words in a really enlightened way. They certainly weren’t these Anglocentric, judging kinds of editors — they were very sensitive to cultural differences and they seemed to be putting in a lot of foreign words and a lot of words from different varieties of English, which must have been amazing for that day when colonial varieties of English were just emerging,” said Ogilvie.

Then 100 years later in Robert Burchfield took aimed his editorial tomahawk at foreign linguistic influences, chopping off about 17% of all those terms extant in earlier editions. Lost forever are such words as balisaur, an Indian badger-like animal; the American English wake-up, a golden-winged woodpecker; Boviander, the name in British Guyana for a person of mixed race living on the river banks; and danchi, a Bengali shrub.

Shocked yet? No?

I’ll grant you, these aren’t exactly household terms, unless of course your household is on a riverbank in Guyana. The shocking part is that these words were deleted at all. “If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves,” Ogilvie said.

Since its foundation, OED editors have often come under fire for including strange and outlandish English creations. As one 19th-century reviewer noted, “there is no sure or more fatal sign of the decay of the language than in the interpolation of barbarous term and foreign words.”

But chronicling that “decay” was what the OED was about from the very beginning. “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,” said Ogilvie. At the very start of the OED project, chief editor James Murray published a global appeal for citations from all around the world for samples of the most exotic English to be found. The myth of OED editorial Anglocentrism appears to have been started by Burchfield himself, claims Ogilvie

“I traced it back and it all started in the early 1970s with Burchfield. If a dictionary editor says this to journalists and scholars, they will believe him. But no one checked either dictionary,” she said. “But this stuff about world English wasn’t true. The only way I can explain him doing it is that, in the scholarly word of linguistics, the 1970s was when the first work on varieties of English started to come about. Maybe he wanted to be seen as part of all that.”

The moral of this story is, I guess, to check your dictionary before you check your dictionary.

Tip of the hat to RominaZ at ProZ News and thanks to Alison Flood for her nice story in the Guardian.


  1. Reznik Novak says:

    I’ve had trouble taking dictionaries serously since terms like Doh, OMG and LOL began making their way into the pages of what used to be respected resources.

  2. Tracy Willis says:

    I have no problem with the Oxford being more selective as time moves on, English s becoming an incredibly unwieldy and misused language, so some resistence to continually being cutting edge is nice.

  3. So are the words coming back?

  4. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that original OED was more enclusive, as the Empire would have been at it’s height and Englishmen would have little to fear about Anglo supremecy. After WW2 is when Englishmen became more reactionary and protective about Englishness.

  5. Really now, the last time I heard criticisms levelled at OED was because of its sheer massiveness and that it was becoming too inclusive, so now they have to take criticism for being too exclusive and cutting down its size.

  6. The other side of the equation sounds a little aimless.

  7. I think something this lady missed is that the Oxford is primarily focused on the written word, not the spoken one, (that is why it also is so strict in its prescribed usage) and therefore the evolution of written and spoken Engish movement in different directions and paces.

  8. Michael says:

    People who argue over dictionary words like balisaur are pedantic, and I should hope to never have to share a dinner table with them.

  9. Roxanne says:

    How did people not notice words just disappearing from the dictionary in the 1970’s?

  10. pam says:

    Imagine playing scrabble with these people…

    • Ken says:

      No thanks. I always lose at imaginary scrabble.

  11. A conspiracy you say, about our dictionaries, how sinister.

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