Our words, their words

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 30, 2012 20:50 hrs

Is it a felony of lexicographic fecklessness or merely a misdemeanor of misunderstood motives? Word guardians have been up in arms this week over claims in a new book about the Oxford English Dictionary, which asserts that one of its former editors, Robert Burchfield, surreptitiously expunged hundreds of words with foreign origins.

These accusations come from the linguist Sarah Ogilvie, herself a former editor at the dictionary, in her book Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary, released Thursday by Cambridge University Press. Her assertions are particularly notable because Burchfield, the editor of a four-volume supplement of the dictionary completed in 1986, had cultivated the reputation as someone who was far more inclusive than his predecessors.

Deleting words from the dictionary is considered verboten. “The deletion of entries went against all OED policy before and since: usually, once a word is added to the OED, it remains forever,” she writes.

One of his best-known accomplishments was to include vulgar slang for copulation and female genitalia. But he also frequently bragged of being far less opposed than previous editors to including foreign words. According to Ogilvie’s book, he once told Newsweek, “It seemed obvious to me that the vocabulary of all English-speaking countries abroad should receive proper attention.”

The book’s observations were reported this week in The Guardian, and a first wave of reaction on Twitter showed how fascinated people are with language. But though Burchfield’s reputation absorbed the brunt of the early criticism, many are now rallying to his defence, including representatives of the OED, as the dictionary is known, and even Ogilvie. Why Burchfield dropped certain words remains unknown; he died in 2004.

First, some history.

The OED, often considered the bible of the English language, got its start in the mid-1800s. Modifications to the giant book, which require extensive research and citations, do not occur lightly. In 1933 editors compiled a supplement of new words to be added. Burchfield edited his four-volume supplement decades later.

That supplement was swallowed whole into a new 1989 edition, but the 1933 supplement was not — and therein lies the rub. In compiling his supplement, was Burchfield more stuffy about the English language than his predecessors, or not?

Ogilvie says she did not doubt Burchfield’s claim that he was more broad-minded until she began editing at the OED, after his departure. She says that as she looked through past editions she noticed that words in earlier volumes were missing from Burchfield’s supplement, particularly those with foreign roots.

She set out to analyse the omissions. By examining a random sample of 10 per cent of the words in the four-volume Burchfield supplement and comparing those entries with those in the 1933 supplement, she concluded that Burchfield deleted 17 per cent of words that she broadly categorised as borrowed from regional dialects of English or coming from another language. Among his favourite targets were American words that had crept into the dictionary, like frog-pond and seed-cake, and other foreign-sounding words like danchi (Bengali for a tropical shrub) and boviander (from British Guiana for people of mixed race who live on river banks).

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the OED, says Ogilvie’s comments were being taken out of context, and that Burchfield was being unfairly besmirched. He says Burchfied “did not delete anything”.

“What Burchfield did was create an entirely new supplement in four very large volumes,” Sheidlower says in an interview. “He included most of the material in the 1933 version, but not everything. He felt that some words were so esoteric that ‘they don’t have to be in my supplement.’ That is what editors do.” That said, Sheidlower adds, the 1933 entries not included in the four supplements did not vanish. “Those words are still there, and they are being added to OED3 online.” Among the restorations so far, he says, are automobilize (American usage) and aberglaube (German, for a belief in things beyond the certain and verifiable).

In a telephone interview Ogilvie takes a seemingly softer stance toward Burchfield than she does in her book. “It is important not to attribute mendacity to Burchfield,” she says, “but rather to give the early editors recognition for their contribution toward making the OED a truly global text. This is a good-news story about the early OED editors more than it is a bad-news story about Burchfield.”

©2012 The New York Times

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