[lg policy] Dictionary Dust-up (Danchi Is Involved)

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Nov 29 15:01:53 UTC 2012

The New York Times

November 28, 2012
Dictionary Dust-Up (Danchi Is Involved)

Is it a felony of lexicographic fecklessness or merely a misdemeanor of
misunderstood motives?

Word guardians have been up in arms this week over claims in a new book
about the Oxford English Dictionary, which asserts that one of its former
editors, Robert Burchfield, surreptitiously expunged hundreds of words with
foreign origins.

These accusations come from the linguist Sarah Ogilvie, herself a former
editor at the dictionary, in her book “Words of the World: A Global History
of the Oxford English Dictionary,” being released Thursday by Cambridge
University Press. Her assertions are particularly notable because Dr.
Burchfield, the editor of a four-volume supplement of the dictionary
completed in 1986, had cultivated the reputation as someone who was far
more inclusive than his predecessors.

Deleting words from the dictionary is considered verboten. “The deletion of
entries went against all OED policy before and since: usually, once a word
is added to the OED, it remains forever,” she wrote.

One of his best-known accomplishments was to include vulgar slang for
copulation and female genitalia. But he also frequently bragged of being
far less opposed than previous editors to including foreign words.
According to Dr. Ogilvie’s book, he once told Newsweek, “It seemed obvious
to me that the vocabulary of all English-speaking countries abroad should
receive proper attention.”

The book’s observations were reported this week in The Guardian, and a
first wave of reaction on Twitter showed how fascinated people are with
language. But though Dr. Burchfield’s reputation absorbed the brunt of the
early criticism, many are now rallying to his defense, including
representatives of the OED, as the dictionary is known, and even Dr.
Ogilvie. Why Dr. Burchfield dropped certain words remains unknown; he died
in 2004.

First, some history.

The OED, often considered the bible of the English language, got its start
in the mid-1800s. Modifications to the giant book, which require extensive
research and citations, do not occur lightly. In 1933 editors compiled a
supplement of new words to be added. Dr. Burchfield edited his four-volume
supplement decades later.

That supplement was swallowed whole into a new 1989 edition, but the 1933
supplement was not — and therein lies the rub. In compiling his supplement,
was Dr. Burchfield more stuffy about the English language than his
predecessors, or not?

Dr. Ogilvie said she did not doubt Dr. Burchfield’s claim that he was more
broad-minded until she began editing at the OED, after his departure. She
said that as she looked through past editions she noticed that words in
earlier volumes were missing from Dr. Burchfield’s supplement, particularly
those with foreign roots.

She set out to analyze the omissions. By examining a random sample of 10
percent of the words in the four-volume Burchfield supplement and comparing
those entries with those in the 1933 supplement, she concluded that Dr.
Burchfield deleted 17 percent of words that she broadly categorized as
borrowed from regional dialects of English or coming from another language.
Among his favorite targets were American words that had crept into the
dictionary, like frog-pond and seed-cake, and other foreign-sounding words
like danchi (Bengali for a tropical shrub) and boviander (from British
Guiana for people of mixed race who live on river banks).

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the OED, said Dr. Ogilvie’s comments
were being taken out of context, and that Dr. Burchfield was being unfairly
besmirched. He said Dr. Burchfied “did not delete anything.”

“What Burchfield did was create an entirely new supplement in four very
large volumes,” Mr. Sheidlower said in an interview. “He included most of
the material in the 1933 version, but not everything. He felt that some
words were so esoteric that ‘they don’t have to be in my supplement.’ That
is what editors do.”

That said, Mr. Sheidlower added, the 1933 entries not included in the four
supplements did not vanish. “Those words are still there, and they are
being added to OED3 online.” Among the restorations so far, he said, were
automobilize (American usage) and aberglaube (German, for a belief in
things beyond the certain and verifiable).

In a telephone interview Dr. Ogilvie took a seemingly softer stance toward
Mr. Burchfield than she does in her book. “It is important not to attribute
mendacity to Burchfield,” she said, “but rather to give the early editors
recognition for their contribution toward making the OED a truly global
text. This is a good-news story about the early OED editors more than it is
a bad-news story about Burchfield.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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