The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary, by Sarah Ogilvie (Knopf, 370 pp., $30)

Recently, I had a friend to lunch in New York and when I showed him my study, he was struck by the magnificent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary on my shelves, which is to say the 1961 corrected reissue of the 1933 first edition, the one Vivian Ridler printed on the university press, not lithographically. To run one’s fingers over the pages of the resplendent 13 volumes in their cream and blue wrappers, with their wonderfully tactile raised surfaces, is one of those pleasures that only proper books bestow, though to read the definitions, etymologies, and illustrative quotations is a rarer pleasure still.

No serious reader can be indifferent to the glories of the OED. Its wonderfully subtle, precise, comprehensive definitions, its illustrations setting forth the historical evolution of words, and its incomparable array of cited authors are marvels of scholarship. Delight in this most authoritative of dictionaries naturally leads to interest in James Murray, the OED’s founding editor and the many men and women who helped him to compile the Dictionary. Sarah Ogilvie’s The Dictionary People seeks to satisfy that interest. Does it succeed? It may complement but it certainly does not supersede the delightful biography that Murray’s granddaughter, K. M. Elisabeth Murray, wrote of the great lexicographer, Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (1977), which Anthony Burgess rightly praised as “one of the finest biographies of the twentieth century.” Nor does it come close to giving readers an understanding of the life of dictionary-making that Robert de Maria, Jr. gives his readers in Johnson’s Dictionary and the Language of Learning (1986). It is nothing as authoritative as Peter Gilliver’s The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (2016).

What does Ogilvie’s offer instead? She certainly serves up a crowded gallery of pen portraits of Murray and his coworkers. She sets scenes with a brisk, affecting vividness. She writes a bubbly narrative. Yet her grasp of lexicography can be wobbly.

The OED’s founding editor is a fascinating figure. The son of a tailor, Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (1832–1915), was born in Denholm, Scotland, and left school at the age of 14, but only after proving himself a prodigy with a passion for philology. He knew the letters of the English alphabet before the age of two and the Greek alphabet before the age of seven. He knew the Latin names of plants after mastering the rudiments of Latin. He also taught himself French, German, Italian, and classical Greek. Before beginning work on what would become the OED in 1879, he worked as a schoolmaster, a profession for which he had a genuine genius. He was also a devoted family man, siring no less than 11 children. It was his wife Ada who insisted that he move his office for the Dictionary out of the family house in the Banbury Road and into the back garden, where Murray built his famous Scriptorium, the cramped iron shed in which he and his helpers toiled for 30 years. After Murray’s death, the shed was demolished and Ada remarked on the terrible void it left for her and her children, so much of whose daily lives were intertwined with the repository of her husband’s herculean research.

Toward the end of his labors, Murray was ambivalent about whether he had chosen the right profession. “The greatest sacrifice the Dictionary entailed upon me, by far,” he confessed to his eldest son—who would graduate with a first from Balliol, write a scholarly book on chess, and become Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools—“was the constant companionship of my own children; and I doubt it was worth the sacrifice. I have tried as a husband and father, to do what should have been the work of a celibate and ascetic, a Dunstan or a Cuthbert; no wonder it has been a struggle. But has it been worth it?” That the philologist prevailed over the family man in Murray may have given him second thoughts, but it has been an enormous boon to the rest of us.

Though Ogilvie provides good portraits of the founders of the OED, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, as well as the editors Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and Charles Onions, she contrives to see too many of her figures—especially the more eccentric ones—as avatars of our own fashionable notions. Too many pages, for instance, are given over to an oddly gushing account of the career of “Michael Field,” the pseudonym for Katherine Brady and Edith Cooper, the rather absurd literary ladies who were for many years readers for the Dictionary. Moreover, Ogilvie sees most of the women involved in providing “slips” (the sheets of paper on which readers for the Dictionary supplied Murray with their illustrations of words) as proto-feminists, oppressed souls knocked about by unfairly patriarchal men. Whether North Oxford at the time, learned or otherwise, actually saw itself in such terms is not a question with which Ogilvie concerns herself. “Should women writers be read for the Dictionary?” she asks. “They were, of course,” she concedes, “though not in the quantity that male authors were.” That there were simply more male than female authors on which to draw does not somehow signify. For Ogilvie, despite this disparity, there ought to have been an equal number of male and female authors read. In her Whiggish history, the Dictionary People are too often dragooned into vindicating such silly prejudices.

Despite her soft spot for the Dictionary’s female readers, Ogilvie is constrained to dismiss poor Charlotte Yonge, author of the excellent Tractarian novel, The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), as “old fashioned.” Why? The novelist was “a devout worshipper in the parish church,” and her books contain “didactic messages about the duties of a Christian.” Murray, however, saw fit to quote from Yonge’s works 1,300 times, which shows the extent to which he was uninfected by Ogilvie’s faddish strictures.

Murray’s definition of “fad” is tell-tale here: “A crotchety rule of action; a peculiar notion as to the right way of doing something; a pet project, esp. of social or political reform, to which exaggerated importance is attributed; in wider sense, a crotchet, hobby, ‘craze.’” One cannot view this definition on the online site for the OED because, as the current editors explain: the “OED is undergoing a continuous programme of revision to modernize and improve definitions. This entry has not yet been fully revised.” In the OED’s second edition, edited by J. A. Simpson, the sentence regarding “social or political reform”—which so aptly skewers the whole progressive project—is predictably excised.

If the current editors are poised to bundle away what had been the provocative élan of the OED’s definitions under Murray’s tutelage, Ogilvie in her account of its helpers can be relentlessly informative about things most readers will already know. Speaking of Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, for instance, a frequent contributor to the Dictionary, Ogilvie tells her readers that he was also the editor of the National Dictionary of Biography, “which is still going strong today under the aegis of Oxford University Press.” Reading this, those charged with marketing the ODNB must despair of the efficacy of their efforts.

Admittedly, these might seem trifling foibles, but when Ogilvie writes of lexicography, a subject upon which she should be expected to have some reliable expertise, we can see that her misjudgments are more fundamental. “We think of the OED as a radical dictionary,” she writes, “because of its size, its scholarship, and its methods . . . But if you compare it with other languages, there was nothing about its creation in the mid-nineteenth century that had not been done before in Europe.” Yet no reasonably informed person would regard the OED as “radical:” its debt to Johnson’s great Dictionary, to name just one, is patent, as anyone can see who attends to its development of the Great Cham’s use of illustrative quotation or the frequency with which “[J]” appears throughout its pages. Secondly, most of the compilation of what would become the OED was started in the late nineteenth century, when Murray took over the reins, not in the mid-nineteenth century, though the London Philological Society might have broached the need for a new dictionary as early as 1857. Thirdly, there were no dictionaries in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century comparable to the OED, whether with respect to the realization of its historical principles or its wide-ranging quotations from classic authors. Gilliver cites the German scholar Franz Passow’s Greek dictionary of 1826 as an influence on the OED—especially his declaration in the introduction that genuinely historical dictionaries must capture “the life history of each individual word.” Yes, Murray and his editors followed Passow in embodying this “life history” in the OED; but an influence on a great work, however profound, is not necessarily comparable to the great work itself. We do not put Holinshed on the same level as Shakespeare.

Even worse, Ogilvie, who identifies herself on the book’s jacket as “a linguist and lexicographer,” claims that Johnson’s dictionary was “prescriptive”—as opposed to “descriptive”—which is to say that it defined words as they ought to be, not as they were. For Ogilvie, in other words, Johnson’s Dictionary was given over to “telling . . . readers what words should mean, and how they should be spelled, pronounced and used.” Of course, as all readers of Johnson’s Dictionary would know, this is a crude misrepresentation of his lexicographical work.

Henry Hitchens’s superb Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Johnson’s Dictionary (2005) presents a far more accurate understanding of Johnson’s approach to lexicography. Speaking of the Preface that Johnson wrote to his Dictionary, Hitchens says that “it is magisterial, noble, imperishable . . . no one has ever written so acutely and at the same time so personally about the problems of language and lexicography.” For Hitchens, “The experience of writing the Dictionary . . . transformed Johnson’s ideas about these subjects, and accordingly the Preface feels very different from the Plan of eight years before. Johnson is reconciled to the instability of language. He understands the importance of descriptive lexicography, and has renounced his own narrowly prescriptive notions.” And to substantiate his reading of this development of Johnson’s lexicographical career, Hitchens quotes the great man himself, who insists that “while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, . . . words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.” Only a poet could have landed on so happy a metaphor to capture the irrepressible exuberance of language. It is also the poet of the vanity of human wishes in Johnson who charts the disillusionment he experienced in persevering with his great work:

When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined, and pleased myself with a prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of literature, the obscure recesses of northern learning, which I should enter and ransack, the treasures with which I expected every search into those neglected mines to reward my labour, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisitions to mankind. When I had thus enquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to enquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical. But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. 

Ogilvie’s voguish leanings notwithstanding, there are intriguing things in her book. For example, there is her description of the Sunday Tramps, who were formed and led by the godless Leslie Stephen. Like all good agnostics, he and his friends—mostly upper-middle-class professional men—spent their Sundays walking instead of attending church services. Murray defined the word agnostic as “one who holds that the true existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomenon is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable.” Murray, a staunch Nonconformist, would never have been asked to join the Club—he was too devout—though his professional relationship with Stephen was fairly close. Ogilvie quotes an excerpt from the speech Murray gave on his seventieth birthday that could only have met with Stephen’s disdain: “The Dictionary is to me . . . the work that God has found for me and for which I now see that my sharpening of intellectual tools was done and it becomes to me a high and sacred devotion.”

Tidbits like these may not entirely save the book from its trendier proclivities but they do make it diverting, even moving.

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