While there have always been avid crossword puzzle devotees among us, one recent trend that seems destined to continue is the growing popularity of word games. Whether it’s Wordle, Spelling Bee or Blossom, families and friends are finding daily enjoyment (and, yes, frustration) in learning new words. That’s the exact audience that will be delighted to discover The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary, Sarah Ogilvie’s captivating, enchanting history.
The story of how Ogilvie—a linguist, writer and lexicographer—found her way to this project is almost as fascinating as the history itself. She begins, “It was in a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement, where the Dictionary’s archive is stored, that I opened a dusty box and came across a small black book tied with cream ribbon.” It was an address book, the names penned in the hand of James Murray, the longest-serving editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death in 1915.
Murray, a father of 11, moved to Oxford in 1884 to work on the dictionary. For years he used a dank iron shed, nicknamed the Scriptorium, as an office. Murray and his assistants sometimes wrapped their legs in newspapers to stay warm. Ogilvie compares the monumental task of compiling the dictionary to a modern crowdsourcing project. The editor issued a global call for contributions, reaching out through newspapers, journals, clubs and schools. The result, Ogilvie tells us, “was massive,” requiring the installation of a special mailbox outside of Murray’s home. More than 3,000 contributors, primarily volunteers, mailed slips to the editor providing examples of how certain words were used, giving particular attention to rare, new or peculiar words.
Ogilvie fondly refers to these volunteers as “the Dictionary People,” and set out to discover more about them. Her research uncovered “not one but three murderers,” along with suffragists, vicars, inventors, novelists, a collector of pornography and Karl Marx’s daughter. Through their devotion and love of language, the unsung heroes of the Oxford English Dictionary have helped us understand our world better. Ogilvie’s passion for the Dictionary People is palpable and contagious, making this book a sheer delight.