Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute

Book: The Dictionary People (December 2023)

By Sarah Ogilvie

December 11, 2023

What do three murderers, Karl Marx’s daughter, and a vegetarian vicar have in common?

They all helped create the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary has long been associated with elite institutions and Victorian men; its longest-serving editor, James Murray, devoted thirty-six years to the project, as far as the letter T.  But the Dictionary didn’t just belong to the experts; it relied on contributions from members of the public.  By the time it was finished in 1928 its 414,825 entries had been crowdsourced from a surprising and diverse group of people, from archaeologists and astronomers to murders, naturists, novelists, pornographers, queer couples, suffragists, vicars and vegetarians.

Lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie dives deep into previously untapped archives to tell a people’s history of the OED.  She traces the lives of thousands of contributors who defined the English language, from the eccentric autodidacts to the family groups who made word-collection their passion.  With generosity and brio, Ogilvie reveals, for the first time, the full story of the making of one of the most famous books in the world – and celebrates to sparkling effect the extraordinary efforts of the Dictionary People.

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