I’ve started reading Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (from my pile of loot) and I swear, for an OED fan it’s like a combination of thriller and revisionist history. Who knew there was so much angst behind the magisterial columns of type? Lynda Mugglestone has gone through the heavily marked-up proofs, the correspondence, everything that might cast light on the history of the first edition (which was supposed to be finished in ten years and took almost half a century). I’ll pass along a couple of tidbits (and will doubtless have more as I read).
To set the scene for the first excerpt, she’s been discussing the untimely death of the first editor, Herbert Coleridge, in 1861, after only a single specimen page had been printed, and his replacement by Frederick Furnivall, a brilliant man under whose leadership the dictionary made no obvious progress because his “redoubtable zeal and energy went into the establishment of authoritative sources on which a future dictionary might depend, as well as into the extension of the reading programme for such sources…. Furnivall established (among others) the Early English Text Society in 1864, the Ballad Society and the Chaucer Society in 1868, the New Shakspere [sic] Society in 1873, and the Wyclif Society in 1886.” Now comes the part that made me want to stand up and cheer:
His socialist beliefs moreover continued to establish a firm foundation for the linguistic democracy which the dictionary was intended to enact. As Furnivall emphasized in his circulars to the readers for the dictionary, the work in the making was by no means merely to be a ‘National Portrait Gallery’ of the great and the good. Instead it was to be a realm in which ‘all the members, of the race of English words’ would find equal representation.
If you think the forces of linguistic conservatism are strong now, they were far more so then, when there was no example of a truly inclusive dictionary in English, and the editors had to fight the resistance of the Delegates who held the purse-strings every inch of the way. Furnivall, despite the lack of progress in the decade of his editorship (the 1860s), was not the least of the heroes responsible for the all-embracing nature of the dictionary as we have it.
The second excerpt had quite the reverse effect, horrifying me to the extent that I probably looked briefly like this:
[Sir Frederick] Pollock [this one?] was particularly adept at spotting potential anomalies of this kind [words used in citations that were not found as entries], his emphatic ‘Not in NED’ or ‘What is this? Not in Dict‘ regularly alerting editors and dictionary staff to the fact that some difficulty had once again surfaced in the proofs. Aplaintife was another unrecorded form spotted by Pollock at an early stage of the dictionary. ‘The defendant by his false plea maketh himself chargeable both to the aplaintife & to the garnishee’, Sir Henry Finch had stated in his Law, or, a discourse thereof of 1613, providing, for the purposes of the OED, a quotation which aptly illustrated the first recorded use of garnishee in English. This was a legal term which Bradley had painstakingly defined. Nevertheless, if the utility of the quotation was incontestable in this respect, in terms of aplaintife it proved deeply disturbing. Aplaintife, as the dictionary staff found when checking the material in this case, was anything but a ghost. This was a real word which had inadvertently been missed during the earlier reading programmes. Bradley found himself in a real dilemma. Were he to include the
quotation in the form in which it had appeared in his first proof, then it would necessarily foreground the absence of aplaintife from Murray’s earlier work on Ant–Batten, and this, from a number of points of view, would be unacceptable. Moreover, because of the serial publication of the OED, it was impossible to insert aplaintife where it should rightly have appeared — in spite of its undoubted legitimacy. After all, this section of the dictionary had been published thirteen years previously, in 1885. Another solution must be found. It was for these reasons that Bradley evidently
decided to delete the quotation, together with all evidence for the existence and use of aplaintife in English. [At this point I penciled two large exclamation marks in the margin.—LH] Another example of garnishee from the same year and the same text was located (‘If they were deliuered vpon other condition then the defendant alledgeth, the garnishee is at no mischiefe but the defendant’) and it was this which Bradley inserted in the fascicle as finally published. His action preserved the integrity of the entry and also managed to resolve the anomaly that Pollock’s ever vigilant eye had spotted. But it was undeniably at the expense of a word which was — and still is — entirely unregistered in lexicographical terms.
I am truly shocked at the choice to avoid recording an English word rather than risk embarrassing the editor-in-chief.
Update. It appears I was horrified for no good reason. I have heard from a reliable source that the word appears, as far as can be told, only in that sentence in that edition of that book, and is almost certainly a typo; the author seems to have hyped it to add drama to her book at the expense of Bradley, to whose ghost I apologize for taking her at her word.