Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Did Oed Delete Words?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Did Oed Delete Words?

Article excerpt

Is it a felony of lexicographic fecklessness or merely a misdemeanor of misunderstood motives?

Word guardians have been up in arms this week over claims in a new book about the Oxford English Dictionary, which asserts that one of its former editors, Robert Burchfield, surreptitiously expunged hundreds of words with foreign origins.

These accusations come from linguist Sarah Ogilvie, herself a former editor at the dictionary, in her book "Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary," released Thursday by Cambridge University Press. Her assertions are particularly notable because Burchfield, the editor of a four-volume supplement of the dictionary completed in 1986, had cultivated the reputation as someone who was far more inclusive than his predecessors.

Deleting words from the dictionary is considered verboten.

"The deletion of entries went against all OED policy before and since: usually, once a word is added to the OED, it remains forever," she wrote.

One of his best-known accomplishments was to include vulgar slang for copulation and female genitalia. But he also frequently bragged of being far less opposed than previous editors to including foreign words. According to Ms. Ogilvie's book, he once told Newsweek, "It seemed obvious to me that the vocabulary of all English-speaking countries abroad should receive proper attention."

The book's observations were reported this week in The Guardian, and a first wave of reaction on Twitter showed how fascinated people are with language. But although Burchfield's reputation absorbed the brunt of the early criticism, many are now rallying to his defense, including representatives of the OED, as the dictionary is known, and even Ms. Ogilvie. Why Burchfield dropped certain words remains unknown; he died in 2004.

First, some history.

The OED, often considered the bible of the English language, got its start in the mid-1800s. Modifications to the giant book, which require extensive research and citations, do not occur lightly. In 1933 editors compiled a supplement of new words to be added. Burchfield edited his four-volume supplement decades later. …

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