Fitz: And that was the breakthrough idea for you to write this book?
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SO: Eight years ago, I got a new job over at Stanford in the USA and as my visa was delayed for two weeks, I was killing time in Oxford, and so I went and revisited all my favourite places. And on the final day before flying out, I went down into the basement of Oxford University Press, where the dictionary archive is stored, and saw a dusty box that I’d never looked inside before. I took the lid off and there was a little black book inside, tied with cream ribbon …
Fitz: The Holy Grail?
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SO: Yes, and as I took it out, undid the ribbon and opened it up, I immediately recognised the immaculate handwriting of Sir James Murray, who was the longest-serving editor of the Oxford Dictionary and I realised that inside this book, he had listed all the names and addresses of everyone around the world who had sent in words – and often made notes about them. And so I thought, “Oh my goodness, this could be all the people that I’ve been wondering about!” I subsequently found six such address books from Murray and his fellow editors, so I ended up with 3000 names from all over the world, of the people who had sent in words.
Fitz: There’s a book in this.
SO: Yes. But I also thought this is kind of a social justice issue. I want these people to be known, I want a light to be shone on them and to finally get recognition for all of their work because basically without them the dictionary could never have been created. Stanford loved the idea, and so began an eight-year project for me.
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Fitz: Of course, one of the most colourful people of all was James Murray himself.
SO: Quite, and he had moved to Oxford from London, and lived at 78 Banbury Road, Oxford, where he received so much mail with so many submissions that the Royal Mail had to put a red pillar box outside his house, which is still there.
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Fitz: That is fabulous.
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SO: There were so many of these slips of paper, so many books and papers, that his long-suffering wife, Ada – with whom he had 11 children – said, “James, you have to get out of the house”. So he built a corrugated iron shed in the back garden and called it the scriptorium. And it was there that he and three or four other assistants beavered away for the next 35 years, wrapping their legs in newspapers in the cold Oxford winter to stay warm.
Fitz: Is it fair to say the English language is so rich and nuanced because of the initial melange of words that came from the Celts, the Normans, the Saxons, the Romans etc, before the British Empire hoovered up great words from so many of the nations they colonised and heavily traded with?
SO: Absolutely. And I think that really the secret sauce to English is the fact that the English language has never had protected borders like the Academie Francaise, that tries to keep out foreign words and tries to regulate the language. English has never had that, and is richer for it.
Fitz: How does a foreign phrase or word like coup d’etat or schadenfreude make the cut to make it into the OED – as in, be accepted as part of the English language, even though foreign-born?
SO: We track those foreign terms, and you’ll find that when they’re first used in English they’ll have inverted commas around them or they’ll appear in italics. So when eventually, if that drops off and they’re in normal typeface, they’re accepted.
Fitz: I’m aching to tell you my favourite French phrase that has no English equivalent, but which should be granted a passport into the OED.
SO: Go on …
Fitz: “L’esprit de l’escalier”, which translates to “the spirit of the staircase”, and it describes the feeling that hits you, after an animated conversation is over and you’re already out the door or on the stairs, and suddenly think of what you coulda, shoulda, woulda said … but the moment is gone, and will never come again.
OS: I love it. What a fantastic expression. That’s wonderful.
Fitz: Sign me up! And tell us about some of your stand-out word nerds who have contributed to the OED, from history?
SO: Well, one of my favourites is Joseph Wright, who started life as a donkey boy in a Yorkshire mine, aged 6, where he carried tools for the miners back and forth from seven o’clock in the morning until five at night. He then goes and works in a cotton mill by the age of 11. He still can’t read or write by the age of 15 but he goes to morning tea, and he hears one of the workers reading the newspaper out loud and he’s captivated by the story. And so he then wants to learn to read. He ends up becoming the professor of comparative philology, the study of languages, at the University of Oxford, and became a great contributor to the dictionary.
Fitz: I love him already.
SO: Another favourite is Londoner Henry Spencer Ashbee, who had the world’s largest collection of pornography. Every month he sent in all the sex words to James Murray – who was a teetotaller and a strict Christian. But that was the wonderful thing about Murray. He was very true to the same scientific method he used on other words, and if a word occurred in an English context, he put it into the dictionary. What was interesting is that in the 19th century, the most popular pornography was all to do with S&M and bondage and flagellation, so a lot of flagellation words are actually in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Fitz: Beat me with a feather. Way back, I remember being shocked at words I found in there.
SO: Yes, we think Ashbee wrote a very scandalous book that came out anonymously in the 19th century called My Secret Life, which traces a man’s sexual exploits through the brothels of London, and it’s thanks to that same memoir that we’ve got the word “c–k-sucking”, “fist-f—ing”, and “randiness”.
Fitz: Moving right along! Tell me about Karl Marx’s daughter.
SO: In the early 1880s, Eleanor Marx was going through a bad patch, so she asked James Murray if she could do some work for him and actually be paid for it. Normally, all of these people did it for free, but Murray arranged payment, only to find she just went to the British Library, took out another dictionary and copied words from it, and sent them in! Murray was furious.
Fitz: And Dad was hardly helpful?
SO: It had been a hard year for Eleanor when she worked on the dictionary. Her mother had died, and she fell out of love with a man twice her age, calling off the engagement. Karl Marx’s solution that she needed to lose her virginity was hardly helpful. She actually craved to be an actress, which is why she wanted the dictionary money, to take acting lessons – but she never succeeded at acting. In the end, she fell in love with someone else, a feckless married man who eventually left his wife but secretly married a 22-year-old woman, instead of Eleanor! But at the same time, she was doing fantastic work for women’s rights and women workers. So, she’s quite an extraordinary figure, but then ends up taking her own life.
Fitz: In many ways you’re doing mini-biographies of the eccentric, the erotic, the exalted, the exhausted, the ecstatic, the esoteric?
SO: Yes, I just couldn’t stop. I mean, I just had to force myself to stop after six or seven years. I thought this is enough. Now you actually have to get on and tell this story. But yeah, it was such a privilege to learn about these people. And every single one had a fascinating life, which I’m so happy to be able to share with others through this book.
Fitz: We’re nearly there. Astronomers study stars forming. These days, can famous lexicographers like you study words forming in real-time?
SO: Yes, definitely. At the OED today, there are 75 people working and there’s a whole group that just specialises in new words. And of course now, with technology and social media, we can trace words as they’re spreading. You can see who is using them, how frequently, and how the meanings change. You can see how the Right or the Left can often hijack words and spin different meanings which is what we saw with the word “woke”. That started out as a very positive word, but I did some research and identified that it was in July of 2020, when that word was hijacked by the Right and used in a derogatory way.
Fitz: Thank you, and goodbye, unless l’esprit de l’escalier hits me, and I just can’t resist calling you back.
One-liner of the week
I have come to the conclusion that dryer lint is the cremated remains of all of my missing socks.
Quote of the week
“Yes, I’m a change-the-date person… we are going through this… annual argument, which is not helping us.” – Leading No campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine on ABC’s Insiders.
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