Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review: "Lost for Words"

Any fan of lexicographical histories (Chasing the Sun, Caught in the Web of Words, &c.) should be sure to read Lynda Mugglestone's Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (Yale, 2005). Drawing extensively on the OED Archives at Oxford University Press and on James Murray's papers at the Bodleian, Mugglestone digs deep into the inner workings of the Dictionary's editorial team. This effort, she writes, "provide[s] a collective history for the making of the OED which ... can serve to change a number of conventional images" (p. xix).

Mugglestone's use of archival materials, particularly the printed proof sheets of the first edition of the OED, is absolutely fascinating. She uses these preliminary drafts to examine editorial decisions and squabbles as Murray and his team sought to fulfill their task as completely as possible while meeting the practical demands of print publication.

A major point, if an implicit one, of this book is that lexicographers are people too. Johnson's humanity may have been more overtly evident (see "oats," "lexicographer," &c.), but the OED's editors suffered the same dilemmas. Aplaintife had been overlooked in the publication of the first installment of the dictionary, so naturally a quote including that word couldn't be used to illustrate the use of garnishee, could it? (Another quote from the same year was found) (p. 53-4).

The editorial changes made during the proof-reading process were extensive: as Murray scanned the pages he frequently suggested changes to the text, as evidenced by greased pole. Henry Bradley's original draft definition was "a pole rubbed with grease to make it harder to cling to." Murray scrawled in the margin of the proof that something to the effect of "used as a frequent object of diversion at sport etc." would have to be added, otherwise "it looks as if people were so keen on climbing poles that they had to be kept at a distance by the use of grease" (p. 60). The edit was made.

Some of the other topics covered by Mugglestone are the applications of qualifying terms like "rare," "obsolete," "vulgar," &c., which were inherently subjective. I laughed out loud at Murray's refusal to admit that "fray" as a verb ("to frighten or scare away") was obsolete. In fact he used the word in his definition of the verb "huff" ("to fray by calling 'huff'"). He wrote to Bradley "My impression (subject to correction) is that [fray] is the ordinary word for 'to frighten away birds by shouting or with a rattle' .... It is my natural word for this" (p. 160-61). Murray lost that battle, though, and had to accept fray's obsolete status and change his definition of huff (which ended up reading "to scare away by calling 'huff'").

Finally, Mugglestone examines the work to supplement the dictionary (which basically began as soon as the first fascicle was published and continued throughout the publication process and beyond) and the brave new world of digital lexicography (without the limitations of the printed page, but with so many other challenges).

A great read, often amusing and always illuminating.

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