Notes on a Dictionary 'Scandal': The Truth About the Words Vanishing from the OED

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In a shocking disclosure revealed by Alison Flood in the Guardian this week, the most venerable of dictionaries, the Oxford English, may be embroiled in quite the scandal. Or is it?

From Flood's piece: "An eminent former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors, according to claims in a book published this week." The book she's talking about is Words of the World, by Sarah Ogilvie, who worked as a linguist, lexicographer, and editor on the OED; in the book, Ogilvie writes that Robert Burchfield, who was appointed in 1957 to work on four supplements of the dictionary produced between 1972 and 1986—"charged with producing an update of the dictionary, originally intended to be one volume completed in seven years, but ultimately taking up four volumes of over five thousand seven hundred pages, delivered twenty-nine years after he began his project," as OED's Jesse Sheidlower wrote in a piece in the New Yorker today—is responsible for deleting those words. Scandal! But not everyone agrees. As Sheidlower puts it, "This claim is completely bogus."

From Flood, quoting Ogilvie, "I observed a 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 kind 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." When Ogilvie compared Burchfield's supplements to earlier editions, she "found that, far from opening up the OED to foreign linguistic influences, Burchfield had deleted 17% of the 'loanwords' and world English words that had been included by [Charles] Onions, who included 45% more foreign words than Burchfield." Burchfield, alas, can't be asked for his opinion on any of this as he died in 2004 at the age of 81.

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But the OED has a policy against word deletion that sets it apart from other dictionaries, which frequently remove antiquated words to make room for new ones, since, obviously, language is an ever-evolving thing. I spoke to Michael Adams, an associate professor at Indiana University and President Elect of the Dictionary Society of North America, who told me, "I have a great deal of respect for Sarah Ogilvie." (He added that this story about OED "deletions" is not new at all—articles about it came out in advance of the book as far back as in 2008. "I've known about it for a good long time," he said, "though probably to the [non-dictionary] world this is still news.") This no-deletion policy is part of what makes the story "scandalous." At the OED, you add or revise but don't delete whole entries. That's an astonishing rule," to which most other dictionaries don't abide, due to the constraints of manageable print editions and selling copies. "The news that words have been deleted from Webster or the American Heritage dictionary wouldn't be shocking; it's a necessity," he says. "You review the material, find entries that are the weakest, and evaluate those weak entries against the strengths of the new entries editors want to add. You can maybe trim encyclopedic information, but sooner or later, entries have to go."

Yet, as Ogilvie writes, "If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves." Burchfield's actions, then, could be seen as rule-breaking in two ways: One, through the act of "deletion," and two, that the words he omitted were of foreign linguistic influences, making him appear "Anglocentric": "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," per Flood, quoting Ogilvie. (Burchfield also added curse words to the dictionary, which is, in this case at least, something no one's bothered about.)

"If you're going to omit, what are you going to omit, and is there a cultural effect?" asks Adams. "That doesn't have to do with the merits of one word or another but would reflect the cultural perspective of the editor. Did Burchfield have biases? There might be occasions when [he] decided a word had never been naturalized and the inclusion in the OED was adventurous. You could argue that in some of these cases very well." But, he adds, "If you're being fair about it, why is it that partially naturalized words bear the brunt of this deletion? If the OED isn't supposed to be omitting but decided to, why would it be the fruits of contact with other languages and not made-up words from the 16th centry that never saw future use?"

The OED issued a statement yesterday on the matter, which we've excerpted below:

“Former Chief Editor Robert Burchfield, himself a New Zealander, was insistent that the dictionary should expand its coverage of international words in English, and although he omitted minor terms from the Supplement which he was revising and extending, he added many thousands of more fully researched international entries.

“It was nearly two decades ago, when the editorial policy of the third edition of the OED was being formulated, that it was decided that the small number of items which had been omitted from the 1933 Supplement while it was being revised by Robert Burchfield and his staff, on the grounds that they were at that time considered marginal, should appear in the new edition."

"What Burchfield did was not deletion, it was editing," adds Sheidlower in the New Yorker. "Despite the size of Burchfield’s Supplements, he was under severe space constraints, constantly fending off demands to cut back from Oxford University Press, concerned with the rising costs and receding deadlines, and it was hard to justify carrying over seemingly unimportant words from the 1933 Supplement for a new work that was meant to stand on its own." Further, "Burchfield’s task was not to revise the 1933 Supplement, which would always be available for consultation, but to produce a new work, extending the entire O.E.D., with relevant material included from the 1933 Supplement as necessary." Sheidlower adds, "Burchfield 'absorbed most, but not all' of the 1933 Supplement into his volumes, as the historian of lexicography Charlotte Brewer has written, and this was not 'covert' in any way

As for the charge of Anglocentrism, as the OED statement continues, "It’s important to stress that the reason Robert Burchfield decided not to include these words was not because they were foreign, but because it was preferable to give the limited space (and effort) available to some of the many other words that he had to consider for inclusion." Says Adams, "These are the choices that editors make," and points out, too, that Burchfield was also working on his own, unlike the team of James Murray, Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and Charles Onions, who edited the first edition of the OED together: "If Murray didn't like how you were doing things, he'd tell you so; he'd write you a long letter. In a sense [Burchfield] was the only one who worked with that type of autonomy."

Of course, it's more far more fun to consider a scandal at the OED, that weird combination of things thought stuffy and semantic and things considered salacious or against the rules. Which is why this story, and its particular angle, has been talk of the Internet. Still, Sheidlower defends, if not the piece about it in the Guardian, Ogilvie's book itself: "It does exactly what a work of historical scholarship should do: provide a close analysis of editorial decisions, and interpret them. It is a damfool shame that the media chose to exaggerate one aspect of this to create a controversy where none existed."

In any case, it seems the charge doesn't quite meet the definition of scandal. From that OED statement: "The OED has continued to maintain an international perspective, and one of its current policies is to re-evaluate any terms which were left out of the Supplement by Burchfield." Adams adds, "Good for them for being that careful; they're a remarkably conscientious group of scholars." Maybe this is less about a dictionary scandal and more, simply, about the meticulous, if imperfect, process of creating a dictionary.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.