cover image The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary

The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary

Sarah Ogilvie. Knopf, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-53640-7

“I am sure that lovers of our language will not willingly let die the names of those who... have labored in the cause of the Dictionary,” wrote Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray in 1892. In this charming debut history, Ogilvie, another former editor of the OED, answers her predecessor’s 130-year-old imperative. After stumbling upon Murray’s leather-bound diaries and address books in the OED archives, Ogilvie set out to uncover “the dictionary people,” 3,000 individuals across the globe who heeded the call to be part of the largest crowdsourcing effort in history. Invited through newspaper notices to “read the books they had to hand, and to mail to the Editor of the Dictionary examples of how particular words were used,” individuals from all walks of life responded, including “three murderers, a pornography collector, Karl Marx’s daughter, a President of Yale, the inventor of the tennis-net adjuster, a pair of lesbian writers who wrote under a male pen name, and a cocaine addict found dead in a railway station lavatory.” Ogilvie not only introduces readers to a fascinating cross-section of Victorian society, but notes the groundbreaking nature of the OED project; for example, “the radical and open process of the Dictionary’s making... included hundreds of women” at a time when they were often excluded from academic pursuits. The whimsical narrative is also educational, providing extensive insight into the process used to trace the origins of words. Readers will be enthralled. (Oct.)