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The OED, A Truly Global Dictionary

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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that extraordinary 20-volume work, has long been regarded as quintessentially British. In fact, in 2006, the English public voted it an 'icon of England' along with marmite, Buckingham Palace and bowler hats.

In 2001, I went to work as an editor at the OED -- but the words I was editing all came from countries outside Europe. They were, to use the technical term, 'loanwords'. Many such words, that have come into English from other languages, we now take for granted, such as chocolate, originally from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, or sugar, sofa, and magazine, originally from Arabic. Others remain less familiar, such as boyuna, 'a large black Brazilian snake', from the Tupi language, or myall, 'a stranger' from the Dharuk Australian Aboriginal language.

It was out of my work as editor for these words, and my research in the OED archives, that I wrote my book Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Cambridge University Press this week. There I show that the OED has, from its very beginning in the mid nineteenth century, been a global dictionary. It has been global both in the scope of the words it included as English, and in its use of readers all over the world who sent to Oxford the words for the OED editors to consider. In fact, we might call the OED the original Wikipedia -- except it all happened through the postal service, which was, in the nineteenth century, the cutting edge of communication the way the internet is now.

In the last couple of days, my book has caused quite a flurry of controversy -- or rather, a misrepresentation of it has. An article in the Guardian on Monday took six pages of the book and made a big story out of it, ignoring the other 235 pages. The fuss has been all about an OED editor from the 1970s, Robert Burchfield, who took some words, including some of these loanwords, out of the dictionary. Some journalists have suggested that he did this covertly or surreptitiously: that is a ridiculous claim. He was the editor and of course he had the authority to add or delete words. But deleting words from the OED is unusual because the policy is that once a word gets into the OED it never leaves. And Burchfield's deletion of loanwords and world Englishes is surprising because he claimed that he was the editor to introduce far more of these foreign words into the Dictionary than his predecessors. He was a New Zealander after all.

Actually, Burchfield was a terrific editor and I warn twice in the book against attributing mendacity to his actions. My admiration for Burchfield and his great ability as a lexicographer remains intact.

The point of the book is not to criticize Burchfield, as has been assumed in some quarters by people who (I suspect) haven't actually read the book, but rather to celebrate the earliest editors who made the OED a truly worldwide dictionary. As one of the editors of those loanwords in the early twenty-first century, I was constantly amazed by how much and what the Victorian editors had included. From the first letter of the alphabet alone, published in 1884, the chief editor James Murray had put in loanwords such as aardvark and aardwolf, animals from South Africa, and Australian English terms, such as adansonia, the Cream of Tartar tree.

This pattern of inclusion continued into the twentieth century. Editors Charles Onions and William Craigie are heroes in my book for pioneering the way in including so many of these words -- like balisaur, a badger-like animal of India, and bake-oven, a nineteenth-century American word for a stove.

And what's even more amazing is that Murray, Onions and Craigie all did this in the face of pressure not to do so. There were many linguistic 'purists' in their day who did not think that such words should belong in the dictionary. As one reviewer put it in 1889, "there is no surer or more fatal sign of the decay of a language than in the interpolation of barbarous terms and foreign words; if a great dictionary is to be regarded as a treasury of the language it should give no currency to false and fraudulent issues."

I have devoted my working life to the task of being a dictionary maker, and wrote much of this book while working at the OED in Oxford and when I was Chief Editor of Oxford Dictionaries, Australia. I wrote this book as an insider, wanting to give readers a glimpse into the extraordinary world of dictionary-making, and the thousands of people around the world who have helped make the Oxford Dictionaries possible over the last century and a half.

I hope it will be read as such, and that those who comment on it actually have read it.