The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary

by Sarah Ogilvie

Hardcover, 2023



Call number



Knopf (2023), 384 pages


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 36 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 murderers, 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nancyadair
Oh, look, I said. A book about people who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary!

My husband said something disparaging.

Oh, no! I said; It’s right up my alley! I already read one book about it. [The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English
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Dictionary by Simon Winchester]

I dug in and was delighted! Charmed! I loved reading about these diverse people crazy enough to want to be a part of this amazing intellectual feat. I came to love Dr. Murray, who dedicated his life’s work to completing the dictionary.

The OED included the historical use of each word through quotations from written publications. Readers, as the contributors were called, read assigned books or from their own reading, and noted words of interest, quoting its use in the book and the source. They sent in slips with the information. Other volunteers helped to organize and edit the dictionary.

In a world with so many problems, it is wonderful to escape into the stories of interesting and inspirational nonentities. Ogilvie’s chapters are titled with the letters of the alphabet and named for a group of OED contributors. They are far more diverse than you would ever expect. Cannibals. Pornographers. Vicars and novelists. Junkies, kleptomaniacs, lunatics, and murderers. Queers and rain collectors. Suffragettes. Even New Zealanders.

I was puffed up that the contributor who sent in the most slips was the Rev. Job Pierson from Michigan. He was a presbyterian minister living in Ionia who read Chaucer and books on lumbering. The American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men, Michigan, Volume, 1878, noted the reverend had the largest private library in the state, especially in English Literature. Ionia was settled by Germans from New York in 1833 and by 1878 it was a town of 4,000. I expect the good reverend found the intellectual challenge stimulating, having lived in larger cities and being well educated, and serving in a small city in rural Michigan.

I was at a gathering and told my friends about the book and they were interested in it, too. I expect my copy to be making the rounds, while the snow birds noted the title to request from the library.

Thanks to the publisher for a free book.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
Back in 1998 I read “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester. The book billed itself as a tale explaining how the renowned Oxford English Dictionary came to be. The OED is the gold standard for all English dictionaries, all 20 volumes of it. Both “The Professor and the Madman” and
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“The Dictionary People” are about the OED and its creation, but Ogilve’s more recent book, also a best seller, is about many of the contributors to the dictionary, while “The Professor and the Madman” is about mainly one—Dr. William C. Minor who after being acquitted of murder in 1872 and sent to the Broadmoor Insane Asylum in the village of Crowethorne, Berkshire, England devoted most of his time to reading and sending “slips” to the great OED editor at the time, James Murray, Sir James Murray with words from his reading to be included in the OED along with definitions and quotations illustrating the words’ uses. That is the story told in “The Professor and the Madman.” Ogilvie’s “The Dictionary People: the Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary” is about many such people, including Minor. Ogilve, a former OED editor herself, tells the story of more than 26 contributors, actually more than one per letter of the English alphabet. And that is how the book is arranged, Each chapter is a letter of the alphabet representing a group of people who contributed slips to the OED. So imagine a “madman” multiplied many times over (some chapters represented by one letter actually include several contributing people), and their equally interesting stories, and that is Sarah Ogilvie's story. In her own words near the end of the book: “This is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of recording the English language. Ogilvie’s book is a gem, and, while not the contribution that Murray made in giving us the OED, it stands right next to the 20 volumes as its deserving companion.
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
Ogilvie did an awful lot of research, and had a little bit to say about a lot of people. She tried to find some commonalities among those who contributed to the dictionary, but mostly it felt like a lot of disconnected facts that weren't very important to my daily life or to the world in which I
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She tried to emphasize the involvement of women, and chose Queers, Suffragists, and Women as some of her 26 topics in order to specifically do so. She also tried to show that many of the volunteers were just ordinary folks, but the downside of researching historic ordinary folks is there often isn't very much written about them to find out. Thus most of the people who get lengthier mentions are the titled, educators, clergy, or scientists. Even people she mentions as being 'farmers' (in England) turn out to really be landowners who have time to sit around reading books while someone else does the farm work.
She also made comments, which were likely accurate, about how the focus or obsessiveness of some of the dictionary workers would be considered autistic nowadays. She also admitted she could be labelled thus also. Not saying it as a judgement, but more as describing the kind of skill or mindset it takes to accomplish this monumental task.
In the end, I'm not sure the project was worth the effort. Who really cares when a word was first used, & who can be quoted as using it? It certainly isn't one I would donate my money to, tho I might volunteer my spare time. And the people who did contribute didn't achieve what I would consider 'hero' status (except, perhaps, for Dr Murray who spent most of his working life with this single focus).
The book wasn't difficult to get through, but I'm glad I'm done and can go on to something more enlightening. The book was a gift, so I felt obligated to finish. Now I'll try to find some little details I can mention to my friend, so they won't feel it was a poor choice. Such as: now I know it was Murray's enthusiasm for spelling reform that caused him to spell 'axe' as 'ax' making both , so I won't worry that I get it wrong when I need to split wood (see p.91). Or, that it was Noah Webster who changed American spelling from the British standard (e.g. word endings '-er' instead of 're' and '-or' instead of '-our')(p.89).
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LibraryThing member podocyte
I enjoyed reading this book about the people who helped make the OED. Some of the volunteers were very unusual characters while others were ordinary people. It was interesting to learn that many of the "readers" submitted tens of thousand of words over decades.


BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Nonfiction — 2024)
Women's Prize for Non-Fiction (Longlist — 2024)


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Physical description

384 p.; 9.53 inches


0593536401 / 9780593536407
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