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Oxford English Dictionary Goes Native
November 30, 2012 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 12 comments

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.

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