The Dictionary People: The unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary
Chatto & Windus, $35 pb, 371 pp
My edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1979) defines ‘dictionary’ in two ways: ‘1. A book dealing with the individual words of a language … so as to set forth their orthography, pronunciation, signification and use … arranged, in some stated order, now, in most languages, alphabetical …’; ‘2. By extension: A book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged in alphabetical order …: as a Dictionary of Architecture, Biography, Geography … etc.’
With some inventive twists, Sarah Ogilvie’s book is in effect a dictionary in the second sense of a dictionary in the first – specifically, a biographical dictionary arranged in A-Z order, of the behind-the-scene makers of the original edition of the OED (1884–1928): the editors, the specialist advisers, and, most ‘unsung’ up to now, as she terms them, those thousands of contributors of individual words and their sources among the general public across the English-speaking world. The chief twist is that, except in one instance: ‘Y for Yonge, Charlotte …’, it’s not their names that are marshalled in alphabetical order but a motley range of other categories, including their places of origin, their professions, their sexual proclivities and other psychological quirks, their political affiliations, their family or social connections, and their hobbies – of which word-collecting and -sourcing was only one.