Before Wikipedia, there was the Oxford English Dictionary, a Victorian era crowdsourcing project

Salon talks to Sarah Ogilvie, author of "The Dictionary People," about the "unsung heroes" who created the OED

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published October 22, 2023 7:00AM (EDT)

Antiquarian copies of The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles edited by Sir James Murray, line shelves in the Lee Library of the British Academy, on 17th September 2017, at 10-12 Carlton House Terrace, in London, England. (Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)
Antiquarian copies of The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles edited by Sir James Murray, line shelves in the Lee Library of the British Academy, on 17th September 2017, at 10-12 Carlton House Terrace, in London, England. (Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

After graduate school, I treated myself to a full set — that's 20 very large and heavy volumes — of the Oxford English Dictionary for my home office. It was a very on-brand purchase for me, and also a wildly impractical thing to own, as I am reminded every time I move. But where else can I flip through at random and discover that not only is the word "indeedy" (originating in the U.S., "used as an emphatic affirmative or negative") in the OED, its first documented instances originated in an 1856 volume of The Knickerbocker (or, New-York Monthly Magazine) — "Yes, indeedy" — followed swiftly by Mark Twain's 1872 book "Roughing It," with "No indeedy" this time?

How does an American colloquialism like this — I'm not sure I would have known it to be an actual unique word, and not simply a little flourish of noise Ned Flanders favored to make it sing, without the OED — make it into an Oxford dictionary? Now that I've read Sarah Ogilvie's surprising and delightful new book "The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary," I can imagine James Murray, the venerable Dictionary editor, reading a slip of paper mailed to his Scriptorium, perhaps by a volunteer in the U.S., documenting the appearance in print of this folksy expression.

Such volunteers — the Dictionary People of Ogilvie's title — were an invaluable source of labor for the Oxford team tasked with completing the ambitious dictionary project that began with three original editors in 1857, was shaped largely by Murray, and finally finished in 1928 after his death. While some enjoyed notoriety — see Simon Winchester's 1998 book "The Surgeon of Crowthorne," adapted into the 1999 Sean Penn film "The Professor and the Madman" — there were also thousands of other volunteer readers who made up, as Ogilvie writes, "the Wikipedia of the nineteenth century — a huge crowdsourcing project," sending in examples of words they encountered in print. 

"I just thought they deserved credit, finally, and I wanted to shine a light on them. And I wanted to know where they lived, what they did with their lives, what they did with their daily life, who they loved."

While spending time in the Dictionary archives at Oxford University Press, Ogilvie — a linguist, lexicographer, current director of Oxford University's Dictionary Lab, and a former OED editor herself — came across the address books Murray kept for his volunteers, which to her knowledge had not been fully unpacked in any other OED histories. "I became obsessed," she writes, "with unearthing the lives of the people in his address book and reclaiming their place in the history of the OED." Using the information in those books, including codes that Murray used to annotate the entries, she and her research team were able to peel back the curtain on this largely unseen army of contributors who helped build the foundation for the OED to become the dynamic, expansive, exhaustive linguistic resource that it still is today.

"The Dictionary People" is an intriguing A-Z composite of the most intriguing and representative of those contributors, which include several murderers, institutionalized mental-health patients, suffragettes, inventors, a preeminent collector of pornography, and even Karl Marx's daughter. I spoke with Ogilvie recently over Zoom about the colorful cast of characters she discovered and the ongoing cultural significance of the OED. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

The OED was designed to be different from the other authoritative dictionaries. Can you explain how?

In the middle of the 19th century, three men came up with the idea of creating a dictionary of every word in the English language. And this dictionary was going to be different from everything before it, because previous dictionaries had not necessarily been based on descriptive data, meaning they had been quite prescriptive rather than descriptive. And this dictionary was going to be one that was based on historical evidence of how a word is used, from its very first instance — more or less giving a biography of every word from the first time that it's used through to its current usage. And so that was how the dictionary was going to be different. It was going to be historical, rather than synchronic, which is what the others had been. So it was going to be a diachronic dictionary — dia [as in] across, chronos [as in] time — so it was going to show you the life of word across time.

And they realized that to do such a mammoth task that they — a small group of men living in London or Oxford — couldn't do alone. So that's why they came up with this brilliant idea of crowdsourcing it, and asking people around the world to read their local books and write out words from those books and send them in. When you think of it, they had no idea whether this was going to be a success or not. But you know, it ended up being a huge success. So many people sent in slips to James Murray's house, at 78 Banbury Road … so many people sent in slips that Royal Mail put this red pillar box outside 78 Banbury Road, and it's still there today.

I love that. So you write in the book about finding Murray's address books tucked away in the archives, seemingly not opened in forever. I think this always shocks us when we find out that there are things in archives that that are still to be discovered. I think people who have not gotten to spend time in archives like this think of archives as very orderly, like a bookshelf: Everything's cataloged, everything's very precise, and it's just a matter of pulling things out and already knowing exactly what they are. But you found these address books tucked away, containing all of these codes and details about these contributors. Can you talk a little bit about the moment you realized what you had found and what it could mean?

Because I used to be an editor on the Dictionary, I had always wondered — and because we knew that this was a crowdsourced project, like the Wikipedia of the 19th century — I had always wondered who those people were. We knew that there were several hundred, but we didn't know exactly how many. And so in the back of my mind, that's always been there: Oh, I would love to know, because I'm originally from Australia, I'd love to know who the Australians were who sent in slips and words. And because I worked in America for eight years, I've always wondered who those Americans were, as well. So that has always been at the back of my mind.

"I think that they were on the fringes of academia, and this project that was attached to a prestigious university was a chance for them to be part of a world that was otherwise denied to them."

I was killing time, because I was starting a new job at Stanford [University] and my visa was delayed. I was down in the basement of Oxford University Press where the Dictionary archive is, and I was just looking around. And in this box, as you say, I came across this little black book, and it was tied with cream ribbon. And when I opened it, I recognized James Murray's handwriting, the longest-serving editor. And then when I saw that there were all these names and addresses, and then, underneath everyone's address, he had a list of all the books that that person read, the number of slips they sent in, and the date that he had received it — he was, you know, quite obsessive, as you could imagine, right? He sort of had to be to do this task well.

And yes, it was just one of those moments. Because I didn't know about the address books, and no one had ever written about them or mentioned them in any of their publications, everything just sort of went into slow motion for me. I thought, My goodness, this might be his address book. And yes, it was. And then I found five other address books. So there are six in total, three belonging to James Murray and then three belonging to his predecessor, Frederick Furnivall.

To answer your question about archives, I thought, Surely I'm not the first person to see this. And sure enough, on one of the pages, as I was looking, I saw a little pencil mark. So an archivist had cataloged this because there was a pencil mark with an archive. But I guess this is a lesson in us making sure that we're always talking with archivists. The researchers really need to talk with archivists to get to know the archives. I was not the first person to see the address books, but I'm the first person to thoroughly go through them.

As I went through the pages, I saw that Murray, as you said, had little codes and little crosses and stars and very strange little symbols that he used. And he also had some very sweet notes about people, where when a woman would get married, he would put her her new married name or, he would write a note about how a contributor had died on a certain date. Or he would also write little notes, like "hopeless" or "no good."

The hopeless ones! I just loved them.

Yeah! So then I realized, Oh gosh, OK, I want to know more about these people. So that's how my journey for the last eight or nine years began. And then I just went down lots of rabbit holes, wanting to find out as much as I could about everyone.

"Women played a huge role in this project. And that did come as a surprise, actually."

I realized that a lot of these people were sending in thousands of slips and reading countless books. They were spending a lot of time on this. And they were doing it for free. They were volunteering their time and their skill. And so I just thought they deserved credit, finally, and I wanted to shine a light on them. And I wanted to know where they lived, what they did with their lives, what they did with their daily life, who they loved. I just wanted to find out everything that I could.

Thankfully, I was going to this new job in Stanford. Stanford really supported this project. And my students were so receptive. And so I worked with a wonderful group of students. And together, we went through the censuses, the marriage certificates, the death records, and we built two large databases and found out as much as we could about these people. So I'm very grateful to the students.

Your research team was like the Dictionary People as well. This quote really stood out to me: "Most of the Dictionary People, including Murray himself, were outsiders,” you write. Why do you think outsiders were drawn to this work, something that set out to be this authoritative?

Yeah, this was a big surprise to me, that these weren't the scholarly elites. And so your question was one that I kept asking myself for several years. What was it that was motivating these people? Murray left school at 14. A lot of these people left school young. And they taught themselves; they were autodidacts. And I came to the conclusion — and I think that there was a bit of this in Murray's motivation as well — I think that they were on the fringes of academia, and this project that was attached to a prestigious university was a chance for them to be part of a world that was otherwise denied to them.

And that includes many more women than we originally knew, right? What did you learn about women's roles overall in the creation of the Dictionary?

They were completely mixed. I learned that Murray really respected women and gave them the same tasks, appreciated them. So they were not just readers, meaning that they didn't just read books and send in words, but they were also sub-editors. And he also asked them as specialists in certain subject areas. Women played a huge role in this project. And that did come as a surprise, actually, to just see how many hundreds of women there were and to see how varied they were. They were from all social classes.

Karl Marx's daughter!

Karl Marx's daughter, who stars in the "H for Hopeless" chapter, unfortunately. Yes, Eleanor [Marx] was there. I've got a wonderful biography of her right in front of me here. She's definitely one of my favorite characters from the book.

Speaking of colorful characters, I thought it was fascinating to read these mini-biographies. Some of the more colorful characters especially had quite a lot going on in their lives. There are murderers, there are people at the forefront of social justice movements. There's a cannibalism strain. Who was the most surprising character to you that you encountered?

Really hard question to answer, because to be honest, each of them was unique and eccentric and devoted. So, right from the first woman: The book opens with "A for Archaeologist." Margaret Murray was a teenager living in Calcutta, reading the books from her mother's bookshelf. And she'd wake up early, while it was still cool, and go to go to the roof of her house and read two main things. One was the Bible — she sent in thousands of slips from the Bible. But then the other topic that she read a lot of were travelers' tales in India. So there were Indian words that she sent into Murray. And she worked for many years doing that, for, I think, seven or eight years. And she didn't quite know what to do with her life. She came over to Britain to visit an uncle and went to this lecture given by the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie. And that's where she just fell in love with Egyptology, and she becomes the first female Egyptologist.

"I can just imagine James Murray perhaps blushing with these bundles of sex words coming in monthly."

She lives to be over 100. And on her 100th birthday, she publishes her memoir called "My First Hundred Years," one of my favorite books. It's fantastic. In the middle of the 20th century, she starts to specialize in witchcraft. And so what's lovely about Margaret Murray — and this happens with quite a few of the contributors who became specialists in their own fields — is other contributors then read her books and sent in words that she had been the first person to write. So now there are many quotations from Margaret Murray in the Dictionary for words to do with Egyptology.

There's a man who sends in 165,000 slips called Thomas Austen — and he is one of four people who has connections with what were called "mental asylums" or "lunatic asylums," they called them in the 19th century. And I think that these people who did this very repetitive, rigorous work, were perhaps just on the spectrum. But in the 19th century, they were classified — on the census, there was a column for whether you were a "lunatic, blind, deaf or dumb" — several of the contributors were classified as that.

There's the first female astronomer, Elizabeth Brown, and her sister. They're living in a rural village together, two spinster women. They send in between them about 15,000 words and slips. Her sister Jemima is especially devoted. And when she dies, she leaves in her will to James Murray over 1,000 pounds, which he really needs. Because that's the equivalent of a whole year's wage — not just for him, but for all of his staff as well. There are lots of little stories in here that I hope also tell the story of the making of the Dictionary, sort of through the eyes of the contributors and the people rather than from the top down. More from the bottom up.

I think also one of the delightful surprises of this book is getting to know the people who sent in great numbers of specific profanities, terms about sex that were contributed. "The Pornographer" is one of the one of the more colorful characters I'd say. It's also kind of at odds, I feel, this spiciness with our contemporary ideas about both word nerds and Victorians. But should it be should this be surprising?

"Dictionaries and lexicographers led the way in the early days of computer science and humanities computing. "

That's a great question. And look, you know, I think all of us have little hidden sides. And therefore, the "P for Pornographer" [chapter] was about Henry Spencer Ashby who lived in Bloomsbury and had the world's largest collection of pornography. But you're right, I mean, I can just imagine James Murray perhaps blushing with these bundles of sex words coming in monthly. And that's another reason why I admire Murray so much is that he was very true to the scientific method and the historical method of the Dictionary. And he was very principled and stuck to the rigor of the scientific principles of the Dictionary. So even though he may have felt compromised sometimes about whether or not to put a word in, in most cases, he did put the word in. So as I talked about in the book, with respect to coarse words and profanities, there was actually an Obscenities Act. And there was a big court case going on at the time, where a slang lexicographer, Stephen Farmer, was being sued for putting in the c-word and the f-word in his dictionary. And Murray, I found letters between them in the archive, so this was very much on Murray's mind. And so even though he gathered all the evidence for the c-word and the f-word, in the end, he decides not to put that in.

Those came in later, right?

Yeah, we then had to wait until the 1970s for those words to get in.

I'm glad that you mentioned the scientific theory behind the Dictionary, because that leads me to my next question. In the chapter that opens with The Big Stink in London, you write, "Dictionary People showed a strong tendency toward innovation." This was in the context of helping the city deal with its industrial revolution-caused sewage problem.  I wonder what that strong tendency towards innovation that you discovered in your research says about how we think about the role of a dictionary culturally. Somebody with a penchant for innovation, and yet also devotion to writing a dictionary, in some ways sounds like a contradiction.

It's true. And when you think about dictionaries, even in the 20th century, dictionaries have always been right at the frontier of technology and innovation. So all of the beginnings of computer science were working on dictionaries, because dictionaries, of course, are structured in the perfect way with these fields. And so dictionaries and lexicographers led the way in the early days of computer science and humanities computing. And even now, dictionaries are being used as the data — the data from dictionaries are powering the back end of the internet. It's thanks to dictionaries' data that we've got text-to-speech, that we've got morphological analyzers. This kind of structured and curated data is vital for certain tasks in machine learning.

That standardization is interesting in light of another historical detail in this book that you write about, the role that the Dictionary People played in the campaign for reformed spelling. The dictionary can be sort of wielded as a weapon, like: Well, is that how it's spelled in the dictionary? To find out that folks who are so devoted to this cause were also quite passionate about changing the way that English words are spelled to be more intuitive, that surprised me as well.

Absolutely. And I too was surprised by that tension there. And to think that Murray in his early career was also a proponent for spelling reform. But when you actually delve into the weeds of those movements for reforming spelling and simplifying the spelling of English, it's actually got a social justice route, where they were wanting to do that because they felt that it was the complicated and unnecessarily complex spelling of English which was a barrier to the working classes and to people learning to read and write. So they were trying to simplify it so that more people had access to reading and writing.

That plays into the outsider affinity perhaps as well.

That kind of philosophy is really present in one of the founders, Frederick Furnivall, who's quite a hero of the book. Frederick Furnivall wanted this dictionary to be a democratic dictionary. He said, "We must fling our doors wide. All must enter." And I think by that he meant all words must enter the dictionary, but also all people must be part of this creation process.

So what role does an institution like the OED play in today's wide open, technologically available, vastly connected internet-powered web of words and information that are instantly available and updated constantly? With Wikipedia, and other crowdsourced projects like the Urban Dictionary, which can go into great descriptions of slang terms and whatnot. What is the OED's identity today?

I think that it's got a dual identity, because I think that users of dictionaries still want an authoritative, rigorous source. So yes, we can go to all of those other freely available places on the internet, or we can just track words ourselves in real time on social media, but at the end of the day, I think many of us still like to go to an authoritative source to see what someone has come up with as either the meaning or the usage. Because basically, they've spent hours and days and sometimes weeks working on a single word. I, personally, really value their work. So I think that is one use of the Dictionary today, and why it's still important. But I think another one is what I was talking about, which is that this is curated rigorous data, which is really valuable to certain digital tools and methods. So I think it's got a dual role, and therefore, I think it will always have a place — at least I hope it will always have a place, at both the front end and the back end of digital work.

And there are still Dictionary People, right? That surprised me too. Can you tell us about the personal connection you made to the contributor Mr. Collier?

When I first started working at the Oxford Dictionary — actually, down in Australia, and then over in Oxford — I used to open the mail and every month would come in this eccentrically wrapped bundle of slips. They were wrapped in old cornflake packets with bits of dog hair and cereal stuck on them. And inside were always many slips. They were all from the same source. They were from a local newspaper that this man Mr. Collier read from his local town of Brisbane, Australia, which actually turns out to be my hometown as well. But growing up there, I had no idea that just two suburbs away, Mr. Collier was there. Every single day, he would read this local newspaper, cut out quotations and stick them onto little slips. So he, over 35 years, sent in over 100,000 slips.

I had the opportunity of going to meet him in 2009. I met him at a park in Brisbane. He said, "Meet me in my office." And it was this park behind the Paddo Tavern, which was quite a rough pub. So I turn up and there he is, sitting on the park bench in the sunshine, reading of all things the Courier Mail newspaper, and so we sat and talked together for several hours. He fits into the Dictionary People in many respects. He too left school at 14. And he said that in the 1970s, he read an article where the chief editor of the Oxford Dictionary at that time, Bob Burchfield, was putting out an appeal and asking people around the world to again read their local books and newspapers and send in slips. And he said to me, “I thought to myself, imagine if I could get one word into the Dictionary.” He in fact got thousands in.

When I did an analysis of how many quotations there are in the OED from the Courier Mail, turns out there are actually more from that very random newspaper than there are from T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf or the Book of Common Prayer. So there's this bias now towards the Courier Mail.

I said to him, look, you know, you've done the most incredible job at sending in Australian words to the dictionary. Would you consider flying over to Oxford, and we could show you the workings, and you could meet the editors? And he said to me, “Oh no, couldn't possibly, just imagine all the Courier Mails waiting for me when I got home?”

So they're just as devoted as ever — so typical of the Dictionary People. What I love about the OED today is they just launched a new website last month. And when you go in, and you're looking at an entry, they now have a contribute button where you can send a message to the editor. It shows me that they're still valuing the contribution of the public.

I learned about the OED and how to use it as a freshman in college in a philosophy of words seminar. We used it mostly for etymology. And then later I bought my own. It's an incredibly impractical item to own, the whole 20-volume set, but I can't bear to part with it, even though dictionaries have largely gone digital now. It's still special to me, I think, because of that first class that I took that I used it in. What makes the OED special to you?

That physicality, it's really special. Because when you look at those 20 volumes, you really realize the scale of this project, and the fact that without the contribution of these 3,000 people around the world, this text could not exist, this dictionary could not have existed without these people. So I think looking at the 20 volumes brings it really home. And that's why I wanted to shine a light on these people and give them credit, finally, because I think without them, the dictionary wouldn't exist.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article contained a transcription error misstating the address of James Murray’s red pillar post box. The error has been corrected. 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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