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  • Nov 24, 2014
  • Updated: 6:13pm
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LINGUISTICS

Oxford English Dictionary editor 'secretly rewrote entries'

Author claims predecessor purged 'foreign words' from authoritative publication in '70s

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 5:17am
 

An eminent former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors, according to claims in a book published this week.

Robert Burchfield's efforts to secretly rewrite the dictionary have been uncovered by Sarah Ogilvie, a linguist, lexicographer and herself a former OED editor.

Ogilvie's book, Words of the World, challenges the widely held belief that editors of the OED between 1884 and 1933 were Anglocentric Oxford dons obsessed with preserving the Queen's English, and that it was not until Burchfield's four supplements, produced between 1972 and 1986, that the dictionary was opened up to the wider world.

"I observed a pattern, that actually it was the earlier editors who were dealing with words in a really enlightened way. 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," said Ogilvie.

She undertook a detailed analysis of Burchfield's supplement, comparing it with the 1933 supplement by Charles Onions and William Craigie. She found that, far from opening up the OED to foreign linguistic influences, Burchfield had deleted 17 per cent of the "loanwords" and world English words that had been included by Onions, who included 45 per cent more foreign words than Burchfield.

Examples of Burchfield's deleted words include balisaur, an Indian badger-like animal; the American English wake-up ; boviander, the name in British Guyana for a person of mixed race living on the river banks; and danchi, a Bengali shrub. The OED is now re-evaluating words expunged by Burchfield, who died in 2004, aged 81.

"This is really shocking. If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves," Ogilvie said.

She also found the OED's first editor, James Murray, in the 19th century, was harshly criticised for including contributions by correspondents from as far away as Ceylon, Mexico, and New Zealand. One reviewer wrote: "There is no surer or more fatal sign of the decay of a language than in the interpolation of barbarous terms and foreign words."

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