A Dictionary Whodunit Worthy of Encyclopedia Brown

Victor Wishna

Staff Writer

Victor Wishna's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR, KCMetropolis.org, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

dictionary_magnify03_9410It’s like a murder mystery for word dorks.

A new book by a prominent linguist and lexicographer alleges that one of the most respected chief editors of the Oxford English Dictionary—“the bible of the English language”—secretly deleted thousands of words. Just offed them without so much as a formal review or tacky online poll. A serial killer of words, acting alone.

Sarah Ogilvie, herself a former editor at the OED, makes the claim in her newly released Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary. She writes that Robert Burchfield’s four-volume supplement of new words, completed in 1986, was approximately 17-percent deficient of certain types of words when compared to a 1933 supplement.

Burchfield’s extra volumes were absorbed into the 1989 and later editions, while the 1933 addition was not. So anyone looking at a more recent version of the OED for the right word to describe a type of Bengali shrub (danchi), an American golden-winged woodpecker (wake-up), or a person of mixed race living on the river banks of British Guyana (boviander) would simply be out of luck.

Adding to the intrigue:* All of the deleted words are alleged to have “foreign origins,” including some words and constructs that developed in—gasp—American English. Aha! A motive.

*Again, if you’re the kind of person who finds this kind of lexical minutiae intriguing. And since you’re still reading, I’ll assume you are.

And then there’s this: Burchfield tried to blame it on someone else, specifically his predecessors. Ogilvie’s research attributes the “widely held belief” that early 20th-Century editors of the OED were simply inward-looking, Anglocentric guardians of the Queen’s English to a rumor that Burchfield himself started, in contrast to his own rep as an open-minded descriptivist.

“I observed a pattern, that actually it was the earlier editors who were dealing with words in a really enlightened way,” Ogilvie told The Guardian. They certainly weren’t these Anglocentric, judging kind of editors—they were very sensitive to cultural differences and they seemed to be putting in a lot of foreign words and a lot of words from different varieties of English, which must have been amazing for that day when colonial varieties of English were just emerging.”

But pretenses and rumors aside, the real crime in question is whether words were actually bumped off. According to Ogilvie, the distinguished dictionary is like the Hotel California: “If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves,” even if it checks out. “If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves.”

A dagger? What is this, Clue?

The truth is, no words may ultimately be harmed as a result of this caper. Editors are now re-examining which words may have been removed by Burchfield and will restore them to the OED3 (the next, online-only edition).

And considering that we’re still getting new words like GIF—which, in verb form (“to create a GIF file of,” as in “he GIFed the highlights of the debate”) is Oxford Dictionaries’ 2012 USA Word of the Year—our language will continue to grow, for better or worse.*

*I should totally GIF that.

So that means it is really one editor’s reputation that is on trial here. A spokesperson for the OED told the New York Times that Burchfield was being unfairly besmirched, and that his 1986 supplement, while not including everything, did not technically delete anything. Jesse Sheidlower, OED Editor-at-Large and President-Elect of the American Dialect Society, also makes a compelling argument on NewYorker.com that this is no case of word murder, but simply editing by an editor (and exaggeration by the media).

Unfortunately, the suspect himself can’t be called upon to explain exactly how he saw it or why did what he did or didn’t do what he didn’t do; Burchfield passed away in 2004 at age 81.

No foul play was suspected.