Told  /  Discovery

When American Words Invaded the Greatest English Dictionary

Slips of paper with peculiar regional terms crossed the Atlantic to Oxford and into the pages of a 70-year lexicographical project.

The OED was one of the world’s first crowdsourced projects—the Wikipedia of the 19th century—in which people around the English-speaking world were invited to read their country’s books and submit words for consideration on 4-by-6-inch slips of paper. Until recently, it wasn’t known how many people responded, exactly who they were or how they helped. But in 2014, several years after working as an editor on the OED, I was revisiting a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement where the dictionary’s archive is stored, and I came across a dusty box.

Inside the box was a small black book tied with cream-colored ribbon. On its pages was the immaculate handwriting of James Murray, the OED’s longest-serving editor. It was his 150-year-old address book recording the names and addresses of people who contributed to the largest English dictionary ever written.

There were six address books in all from that era, and for the past eight years I have researched the people listed inside. Three thousand or so in total, they were a vivid and eccentric bunch. Most were not the scholarly elite you might expect. The top four contributors globally, one of whom sent in 165,061 slips, were all connected with psychiatric hospitals (or “lunatic asylums” as they were called at the time); three were inmates and one was a chief administrator. There were three murderers and the owner of the world’s largest collection of pornography who, yes, sent in sex words, especially related to bondage and flagellation. 

You can’t go a page or two in Murray’s address books without seeing a name that he had underlined in thick red pencil. These are the Americans: politicians, soldiers, librarians, homemakers, booksellers, lawyers, coin collectors and pharmacists. They ranged from luminaries like Noah Thomas Porter, who edited Webster’s Dictionary and became president of Yale University, to unknowns such as 21-year-old Carille Winthrop Atwood, who loved the classical world and lived in a large house with several other young women in a fashionable area of San Francisco. The most prolific American contributor was Job Pierson, a clergyman from Ionia, Mich., who owned the state’s largest private library and sent in 43,055 slips featuring words from poetry, drama and religion.

Murray marked the Americanisms with a “U.S.” label, including casket (coffin), comforter (eiderdown), baggage (luggage), biscuit (scone) and faucet (tap). He was often at pains to add details: For pecan tree, he included that it was “common in [the] Ohio and Mississippi valleys.” He noted that candy, not quite an Americanism, was “in [the] U.S. used more widely than in Great Britain, including toffy and the like.”