Last year I wrote about Sarah Ogilvie’s Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary on the basis of a (sloppy, as it turns out) newspaper story; now that Cambridge UP has sent me a review copy, I can report on it firsthand, and I am happy to say that it is an excellent book, well represented by its subtitle and very poorly by the reviews that stressed a trumped-up controversy about Burchfield (one of the editors).
Ogilvie begins by describing how she came to work at the OED in 2001; I found her account charming and convincing, and it’s a good example of personal reporting at its best—it gives you a real sense of the place and its traditions. Then she proceeds to the history of the dictionary that takes up the first, and more important, half of the book (the second half goes into perhaps excessive detail about a couple of controversies and the “case of the missing tramlines”); I’ve read a number of books about the OED, and this is the one I would give to someone curious about the subject. Not only is it well told, but it’s told by a lexicographer, which makes all the difference; she’s not looking in from the outside, and she is able to convey what lexicography in general is about and what is particular to the OED. Her portrait of James Murray, the great early editor, and the obstacles he confronted is superb; I will quote a longish passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:
Murray had stressed that the English language was dynamic, and that no one person’s English was all of English:
The ‘English language’ is constantly spoken of, and written of, as if it were a definite number of words and constructions; and the question, whether a particular word or construction is ‘English’, is constantly settled by each man according to his own feeling and usage, as if his English were all of English. Then we find absurd statements in books, such as that the English language is calculated to contain 100,000 words (when 50,000 or 200,000 would be just as true), followed sometimes by a calculation as to how many of these are of native English origin, and this without definition of what is included either under ‘word’ or ‘English word’ […]
This was a common theme present in his lectures and writings throughout his life. A few years before he died, he said in a lecture at Oxford, ‘How often have I heard from a man or seen a newspaper confidently assert that such a word or phrase was not English, or perhaps that it was a vile Americanism, when the fact was merely that they were not acquainted with it, it was no part of their English, and in their ignorance they assumed that their English was all English.’ When asked by correspondents for advice on standard usage, Murray always replied that a speaker’s individual free choice gave life and variety to language. He wrote:
Language is mobile and liable to change, and . . . a very large number of words have two or more pronunciations current . . . and giving life and variety to language . . . it is a free country, and a man may well call a vase a vawse, a vahse, a vaze, or a vase, as he pleases. And why should he not? We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?
That’s a rare enough attitude today, and to encounter it so forcefully stated over a century ago boggles my mind. There’s not a word I would change.
On the vexed question of when a word becomes “English” (the book has a great deal about this), Murray said:
It is man by man that Englishmen get the idea of a boomerang, a reredos, a caucus, or a tomato, and find a use for the name of it. Thus the English language is surrounded by a penumbra of French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Hindustani, Malay, Zulu, words, some of which are ‘English’ to some Englishmen, and undreamt of to others. At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?
The English Language is the language of Englishmen! Of which Englishmen? Of all Englishmen, or of some Englishmen? . . . Does it include the English of Great Britain and the English of America, the English of Australia, and of South Africa, and of those most assertive Englishmen, the Englishmen of India, who live in bungalows, hunt in jungles, wear terai hats or puggaries and pyjamas, write chits instead of letters and eat kedgeree and chutni? Yes! In its most comprehensive sense, and as an object of historical study, it includes all these; they are all forms of English.
Oxford treated him shabbily for years, pinching pennies and ordering him not to include so many words (orders he uniformly ignored), and delaying the honorary degree he wanted so badly until almost the end of his life. But he won out:
Despite exclusion from the University establishment throughout most of his career, Murray never tried to change or conform to be included. Likewise, in his work, he stayed resolute—uncompromising even—in his focus on words from the margins, and in his endeavour to include these words in the dictionary. Towards the end of his life, the University accepted him more, and in 1911 Murray gave a series of lectures to the Oxford School of English. It appears that even the media began to understand the essence of the historical method, and the brilliance of Murray’s openness to foreign words and other words from the margins of English. As The Scotsman remarked in 1915, ‘Many people have objected to his inclusion of so many slang, dialectal, or technical terms, of “mere dictionary words” or of “newspaper English”, but the historical method has vindicated him and has shown how many words now classed as “good English” originated in the slang or newspaper English of past centuries, and no one can tell in this age of science, when some polysyllabic compound, like appendicitis, may not become current English.’
And of course you’ll run into many piquant bits of the lexicon, like (to pick one at random) padkos (S.Afr.) “Food or provisions for a journey” (from Afrikaans padkos, etymologically equivalent to “path-cost”). If you have any interest in the OED, you’ll want to read this fine and lively book.