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A logophile tragedy: Thousands of words deleted from OED

November 27, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • A compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with print so small it comes with a magnifying glass.
A compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with print so small… (Oxford University Press )

A lexicographer says she has found that thousands of words have been deleted from the Oxford English Dictionary by one of its former editors. Sarah Ogilvie's "Words of the World," which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, claims that the words were removed for being overly foreign.

For logophiles, this is a tragedy (a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster).

"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 told the Guardian.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been published since 1884, and it endeavors to not just include all English words but to trace their origins. It includes first usages and changes in meaning -- it makes sense that it also includes words that have fallen out of usage. Not sure what that word in a Charles Dickens novel means? Check the OED. It'll be there. At least, it should be.

Ogilvie compared OED supplements from 1933 and 1972 and found that the 1972 edition, which claimed to open up the language more broadly, had actually omitted 17% of the "loan words" from the 1933 edition. "Loan words" are those that have been adapted from or borrowed from other languages, such as "taco." Mmmm, taco.

Ogilvie points to editor Robert Burchfield, who produced four OED supplements between 1972 and 1986. Burchfield died in 2004. The 1933 supplement contained 45% more foreign words than his 1972 supplement. (As a side note for word lovers, one of the two editors of the 1933 edition was named Onions: Charles Onions).

"Decisions on which words to include in the OED have changed over the course of its 180-year history," an OED spokesperson told the Guardian. "This includes choices on which words 'borrowed' from other languages should be included, and where quotations should be taken from. These decisions have been influenced by a range of factors, including space constraints in print editions."

Burchfield did do one thing that everyone agrees on: His editions of the OED were the first to include swear words.

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