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November 27, 2012

The seamy underbelly of British lexicography


Robert Burchfield

One harmless drudge at the Oxford English Dictionary turns out not to have been so harmless.

Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED between 1972 and 1986, has always been seen as a rock-star lexicographer: responsible for introducing the first swearwords into the dictionary, and, unlike his Anglocentric predecessors, for including words borrowed from other languages. The former claim is true, so we’re sure he’d approve of our phrasing in telling you that the latter is apparently bollocks.

The Guardian reports linguist, lexicographer, and former OED-editor Sarah Ogilvie‘s findings — ten years in the researching — that Burchfield in fact deleted thousands of words of foreign origin from the OED, while talking up his own inclusiveness. She also asserts that it’s Burchfield, and not historical fact, that’s responsible for the reputation of earlier OED editors as fusty, prescriptive types, intent on keeping loanwords out of the dictionary.

Among the words found in previous editions that were excluded from Burchfield’s are:

balisaur, an Indian badger-like animal; the American English wake-up, a golden-winged woodpecker; boviander, the name in British Guyana for a person of mixed race living on the river banks; and danchi, a Bengali shrub.

You don’t need a copy of the OED on hand to know that judicious cuts are usually part of the editor’s job, but this is absolutely not the case at the OED. Ogilvie points out that once a word makes it into the dictionary, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete it’s marked with a dagger, but it should never be scratched out entirely. Which is to say, Burchfield did a big uh-oh.

Staff at the OED are now reevaluating the words he removed. Lovers of Indian badger-like animals, rejoice!




Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.