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Posted on 20 Feb 2024 in Non-Fiction |

SARAH OGILVIE The Dictionary People. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Sarah Ogilvie tells the stories of the thousands of volunteers whose assiduous reporting created the Oxford English Dictionary.

About eight years ago, Sarah Ogilvie was making a nostalgic visit to the Dictionary archive in the basement of the Oxford University Press. She had worked there as an editor of the Dictionary, so was still able to visit the archive, and what she found as she randomly examined one of its boxes thrilled her:

I don’t even remember what was written on the one that I pulled off the shelf, but I noticed that it was lighter than the others. I placed it on the floor and lifted the lid. There, right at the top, was a black book I had never seen before, bound with cream ribbon.

She had discovered a notebook kept by the Dr James Augustus Henry Murray, the third and longest-serving editor of the Dictionary. In it, Murray had ‘meticulously recorded’ not just the names and addresses of the volunteers who had contributed to the OED but also many personal details, including births, deaths, marriages, and friendships, the titles of the books they had read, the number of slips they had sent in, and the dates received.

‘Finding Dr Murray’s address book,’ writes Ogilvie, ‘was one of those moments when everything goes into slow motion … I knew that it was likely that no one else had seen [it] or, if they had, they had not deemed it valuable.’ She decided that she could be the first person to track down these ‘Dictionary People’. It was ‘the kind of research project that scholars can only dream of’, and her subsequent ‘detective work’ lasted for eight years as she found out more about the diverse range of people who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. Among them were

… three murderers, a pornography collector, Karl Marx’s daughter, a  President of Yale, the inventor of the tennis-net adjuster, a pair of lesbian writers who wrote under a male pen-name, and a cocaine addict found dead in a railway station lavatory.

Most of the contributors to Murray’s dictionary work were volunteers who had answered advertisements in various newspapers and journals. They were men and women with a wide range of backgrounds and from a number of different countries. Academics and intellectuals were in the minority; some volunteers had no formal education, some were self-educated, one was a successful Victorian novelist; others fitted their reading into their daily routines. Among the women there were suffragettes and suffragists, wives, mothers and carers.

This international ‘crowdsourced’ selection of people read books of their choice or books sent to them by Murray, noting any unusual words on 4 x 6 inch slips of paper, together with the title of the book, publication date, page number and the sentence in which the word was used. They bundled up these slips and sent them to Murray, who, with a small group of sub-editors and editorial assistants, sorted them alphabetically into the pigeonholes which lined the walls of the ‘scriptorium’ – a grand name for the cold iron shed in which they worked. The slips would then be sorted into chronological order, based on the first printed appearance of the word, and Murray, or a trusted editor, would check each slip for accuracy, provide pronunciation and derivation of the words and include them in the Dictionary.

Some words were rejected. A few of these came from the vast collection of pornography and erotica amassed by Henry Spencer Ashbee, and were omitted to avoid the possibility of OUP being prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act (1857).

Ashbee is one of the more exotic characters whose lives Ogilvie describes.

To the outside world, he was husband to Elizabeth, father of three daughters and a son, a manager of a family business, living in a beautiful house in Bloomsbury, London … In the City he commanded respect for his commercial acumen and success.

He travelled widely, spoke several languages fluently and was elected to various prestigious antiquarian societies in England and overseas, but he had ‘started collecting clandestine erotica as a teenager’. Eventually, his collection became so large that he acquired a ‘purpose-built bachelor pad’ at Grays Inn where ‘each Saturday, he invited fellow pornophile friends to gather’ and explore it.

Ashbee bequeathed this ‘largest collection of erotica in the world’ to the British Library, where some of it was burned and the rest, some 900 books, were locked away ‘in a secret cabinet labeled “the Private Case”’ and remained inaccessible to the public until the 1960s.

The reading and the lives of most other contributors were often just as interesting, if less potentially problematic. As a professional lexicographer, Ogilvie has ordered her chapters from A to Z, moving from ‘A for Archaeologist’, to ‘Z for Zealots’, via, for example, ‘C for Cannibals’, ‘H for Hopeless Contributors’ and ‘N for New Zealanders’. It was not easy, she tells us, to decide between the two in ‘V for Vicars (and Vegetarians)’

But in the end, vicars won out through sheer numbers – ministers from Nonconformist chapels … along with numerous Church of England vicars and a handful of Roman Catholic priests, were major contributors … Happily, at least one of the vicars was also a vegetarian.

Reverend Thomas Burditt was not a vegetarian but he spent two years volunteering for Murray, contributing some 8000 slips, drawn from a wide range of sources, including ‘the book on station life in New Zealand to seventeenth century English history and poetry’ before being found dead in a cupboard of his Baptist chapel by one of his parishioners. He was reported to have been ‘suffering from depression of spirits’.

A few others whose mental state became disturbed were prolific, sometimes obsessional, contributors to the Dictionary, like John Dormer, who was committed to a mental asylum at the age of 35. Ogilvie writes that ‘it was a combination of the Dictionary work and personal grief that led to his breakdown’.  Murderer and asylum resident Dr William Chester Minor, ‘so brilliantly depicted  by Simon Winchester in The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, is also mentioned.

So what of the other murderers? One surprising volunteer here was Eadweard Muybridge, who invented the high-speed-shutter technique for photographing the precise movement of a galloping horse and whose work ‘led directly to the development of motion pictures’. His wife, Flora, began an affair with a man called Harry Larkyns, and when Muybridge discovered this he confronted Larkyns, punched him, and left, thinking that would be the end of the affair. The lovers, however, continued to meet in secret and Flora bore a son that Muybridge believed to be his own. When he discovered otherwise, he hunted down Larkyns:

It was nearly midnight when Muybridge arrived at the door of a cabin where Larkyns was playing cards. He asked for Larkyns, and when he came to the door, Muybridge declared, ‘I have brought you a message from my wife.’ He shot him at point blank.

One prolific contributor, Dr Fielding Blandford, was not a murderer or a lunatic but a psychiatrist who was in charge of the Surrey County Asylum at Brookwood. He pioneered non-restraint treatment of mentally ill patients, but his views on women and female sexuality were much less enlightened. Ogilvie tells in horrifying detail how, in 1895, he was responsible for the brutal abduction and incarceration of a young feminist, Edith Lanchester, who had outraged her brothers by choosing to live, unmarried, with an Irish working-class labourer.

Blandford and Edith’s brothers forced their way into the house where the couple were living, dragged Edith to a waiting carriage and drove her to The Priory Private Asylum, where Blandford, claiming that she was committing ‘social suicide’, recorded her condition as insanity caused by ‘over-education’. Only through the intervention of her friend Eleanor Marx and other members of the Social Democratic Federation (of which she was a member), was Edith released after four terrifying days.

The lives of some women volunteers certainly proved that over-educating women was not the cause of insanity. Margaret Alice Murray, who became a professional Egyptologist and published ‘more than 100 books and articles’ on Egyptology, and also ‘groundbreaking books on witches’, began contributing to the Dictionary from her family’s home in Calcutta, then later from England. Typically, Ogilvie, sets the scene:

Margaret had a routine of getting up at sunrise and taking a book to the balustraded, flat roof to read alone in the cool early-morning air. As she read, the smells of the dawning day would drift up to her: incense from the Hindu house servants performing their first devotions, and the pungent odour of spicy jhalmuri (Bengali street food). She underlined words in her books to the background noise of the kitchen staff preparing breakfast, the slap of laundry on stone, and the far-off clatter of the street traders, astrologers and chaiwalas (tea sellers) setting up their stalls.

Ogilvie is a fine storyteller and The Dictionary People is full of lively and colourful accounts of these volunteers and of others involved in the making of the Dictionary. She also discusses the workings of the Dictionary, the rivalries with other dictionary-makers (especially those in America), and the strong movements current in Murray’s time for spelling reform and for the creation of an international language that would unite the world.

It took hundreds of years for English spelling to settle on what it is today. Dictionaries helped with this standardization, and it is therefore no surprise that the push for spelling reform in the nineteenth century came from those within the world of dictionaries. But despite their being advocates for a new spelling system, it was tough to institute any real change.

The attempt to find a universal language, too, ultimately failed.Between 1879 and 1907, over 150 languages were created, including Volapik, Pasilingua, Esperanto ‘(originally called Lingvo Internacia)’, Spelin, Spolik, Mundolingue and Ido. Only Esperanto has survived.

As an overview of dictionaries, and an account of the creation and creators of the OED, The Dictionary People is a very thorough book. At times almost too thorough. Why, for example, do we need to be told the exact addresses of all the famous people who happened to lived in the same street as contributor Leslie Stephen, the father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf? For Ogilvie, however, researching everything to do with the Dictionary people was important and could lead to more fascinating stories. After eight years of searching library archives, official records and registers, personal collections, and visiting anywhere that might reveal more fascinating information, she wrote:

Looking back, I must admit that from the moment I lifted the lid on that dusty box, a little of Murray’s zealous and determined energy entered me. I became obsessed with unearthing the lives of the people in his address book and reclaiming their place in the story of the creation of the OED.

She has certainly achieved her goal, and The Dictionary People is a very readable, enjoyable and often surprising book.

Postscript: The Dictionary People has been longlisted for the inaugural Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction. The winner will be announced on 13 June 2024.

Sarah Ogilvie The Dictionary People: The unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary Chatto & Windus 2023 PB 368pp $35.00

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Dictionary People from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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