Alison Flood has a story in The Guardian reporting on what Sarah Ogilvie, “a linguist, lexicographer and former editor on the OED,” found when she was researching her book on the history of the OED: editor Robert Burchfield “covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors.”

She undertook a detailed analysis of Burchfield’s supplement, comparing it with the 1933 supplement by Charles Onions and William Craigie. 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 Onions, who included 45% more foreign words than Burchfield. […]

“This is really shocking. If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves,” Ogilvie said.

I have used to agree with her; “shocking” is le mot juste. (Thanks, peacay!)

Update. Jesse Sheidlower sent me a link to his New Yorker blog post on this topic, and I now realize I should have been more suspicious of a newspaper report on a linguistic topic; it turns out to be much ado about nothing:

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. The misunderstanding about the purpose of Burchfield’s Supplements is the source of the current controversy.

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: in the Preface to the first volume of his work, Burchfield wrote specifically of his treatment of the 1933 Supplement, describing his “rejecting only those words, phrases, and senses that seemed transitory or too narrowly restricted in currency.” […] So what Burchfield did was not deletion, it was editing.

Sarah Ogilvie has closely analyzed the patterns of what Burchfield decided to leave out, and concluded that he was less accepting of foreign borrowings than other editors. But omitting some foreignisms doesn’t mean that he didn’t value this category of words. Indeed, he was insistent that the O.E.D. should expand its coverage of international words in English, and, although he did leave out some seemingly minor terms from his Supplement, he added many thousands of more fully researched global entries. Thus, even if it is true that Burchfield omitted foreignisms at a higher rate than other things, this does not mean that he was hostile to these words.

Sheidlower points out that “Ogilvie’s book itself is rather different from how it was portrayed in the Guardian story. It is a sober analysis of the approaches to loanwords taken by various O.E.D. editors, and does not attribute malice to Robert Burchfield’s rational editorial decisions.”

So, as in a bad horror movie, the monster turns out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors, and there was no vandalism at all. Your money will be cheerfully refunded!


  1. Ah, but there’s another side to the story.

  2. I think the focus of the Guardian piece is more than a little skewed. See bulbul’s New Yorker link and further comments from Jesse Sheidlower and Sarah Ogilvie in the NYT: ‘Dictionary Dust-Up’.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I thought when I read the Guardian piece that it sounded like a rejected plot for a Bond-type movie – if the supervillain doesn’t get the ransom demanded, he will permanently delete thousands of words from the OED.

  4. Yeah, I had my pitchfork a-burnin’, but it looks like he didn’t “delete” them so much as “not include words from a previous supplement in his own supplement” (all based on the understanding that eventually all the words from all supplements would get added to “the dictionary” proper in a future edition, although the articles are unclear about this).
    It looks like Ogilvie’s real point is that proclaiming Burchfield the first internationally-minded editor of the OED is unfair to previous editors when, frex, Onions “included 45% more foreign words than Burchfield”. The fact that Burchfield’s supplement actually omitted many foreign words that were in the previous supplement is just a sort of Alanis-ironic twist to the story.

  5. Was the OED 2nd edition built from [the 1st edition plus Burchfield’s supplement] or from [the 1st edition plus the 1933 supplement plus Burchfield’s supplement]? In the former case, the 2nd edition is “incomplete”, lacking the words Burchfield “deleted”.

  6. Molly, I saw your comment there in the Guardian a couple of days ago. It made me realise I ought not to pass the article on to Language since it was probably all wrong.

  7. Mollymooly: The former. That’s why the OED3 is the true second edition, the first time that every entry has been reconsidered. The policy for the supplements was only to consider new words and new senses of existing words, plus a few known outright errors and omissions from the OED1.
    However, there has never been a policy that every single word ever used in English appear in the OED. The word peth-winds ‘convolvuli’ from Kingsley’s Water Babies that I inquired about was, at least for the moment, rejected as “too obscure even for us.”

  8. @AJP: ah, but did you see my subsequent hedge? In light of John Cowan’s comment, The Guardian’s report was a good deal righter than I had assumed.
    I accept that there has never been a policy that every single word ever used in English appear in the OED, but at first they were more inclusive than later on. It seems inconsistent to winnow the chaff from 1933 but preserve the chaff from 189x. Is “pancakewards” still in?

  9. Yes it is (3rd ed., updated 2005):
    † pancakewards adv. Obs. nonce-wd. towards or for a pancake.
    1867 Cornhill Mag. Mar. 362 Her allowance would not admit of..a surreptitious egg, might her desire pancakewards be never so strong.

  10. Ha! Oops. Thanks for clearing things up LH! Serves me right for not reading more deeply.

  11. Re: pancakewards,
    I don’t know what the OED’s policy is for what constitutes a word, but isn’t pancakewards just an example of the productive suffix -ward(s)?
    Are all instances of -ward(s), -like, -wise, etc., liable for inclusion, no matter how compositional their meaning?

  12. Are all instances of -ward(s), -like, -wise, etc., liable for inclusion, no matter how compositional their meaning?
    In principle, yes. They’re separate words.

Speak Your Mind