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Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary
Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary
Lynda Mugglestone
Yale University Press, 2005
304 pp., $30.00

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Andrea R. Nagy


Losing "Greyhoundy"

How the OED was made.

Like the Bible, the dictionary is a book of weighty authority, and the Oxford English Dictionary is the most weighty and authoritative of all. Conceived in 1857 and published in its first edition between 1884 and 1928, the OED comprised 15,488 pages, 50 million words overall, and two million illustrative quotations. Today, in its updated and uploaded form, the OED defines some 600,000 lemmas, tracing word-by-word the history of our enormous and ever-changing language.

As a masterpiece of imperial English culture, the OED has been the subject of extensive criticism and analysis. In Caught in the Web of Words (1977), James Murray's granddaughter recounted the sacrificial devotion of Murray in his 36 years as chief editor of the dictionary. In Empire of Words (1994), John Willinsky documented the Victorian bias toward great white men built into the dictionary. In The Professor and the Madman (1999), Simon Winchester told the story of the murderer in the insane asylum who contributed more than anyone knew to the making of the OED, and in The Meaning of Everything (2003), Winchester completed his story of the OED with anecdotes and personal portraits. Beyond these popular works, numerous scholarly articles and books have uncovered omissions, antedatings, and corrections to the dictionary.

So is there more "hidden history" to be revealed? According to Lynda Mugglestone, there certainly is. Behind the OED's authoritative text is a history of composition, complete with personalities, debates, and prejudices that shaped its first edition. How were definitions written? How were quotations selected for inclusion? How was spelling and pronunciation decided upon? Does the OED really trace the history of every English word that has ever existed? These questions are the subject of Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Mugglestone has closely examined the editing process of the OED in a way that has not been done before. By poring over a vast archive of ...

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