1 December 2023 Susannah

The Dictionary People

The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

It’s always good to have a cracker of a book near the end of the year, and in the past very sad days, I’ve been much in need of an absorbing read. I certainly found it in this utterly fabulous new book, The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie. It’s a book I want to force all my friends to read, so that they can share the same joy in it that I experienced.

In 2014 an Australian woman named Sarah Ogilvie was in an Oxford basement where the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary were stored. She had worked as an editor on the famous book and was soon to move to the USA, so was paying a nostalgic visit to the basement. Opening a box at random, she found a little black book she’d never seen before, a book that turned out to be Dr James Murray’s address book. He was the editor of the dictionary from 1879 to 1915, and in this small book he kept the names and addresses of the many people who sent in slips with definitions, some of which would end up in the dictionary. Intrigued, Ogilvie began on a search for the people behind the names, discovering in the process the intriguing men and women, prisoners and vicars, queers and pornographers, rain collectors and novelists, who worked, without pay, for the sheer love of words.

The book is organised, as suits a book about a dictionary, alphabetically. I especially loved the chapter on N for New Zealanders, but every chapter was rich with fascinating information. I kept wanting to share what I was reading with others, as all the facts were endlessly intriguing. It ended with an amazing story of a naturist in Brisbane who sent in an extraordinary number of word definitions and quotes from the Brisbane Courier-Mail which he raided from neighbours’ bins at midnight, while strolling the streets in the nude. Thanks to him, many Aussie words such as ‘Petrolhead’, ‘Sickie’ and ‘Gurgler’ made it into the OED.

This is a book I know I will read again with pleasure, and which I encourage everyone who loves words and dictionaries to read as soon as you can. I learned so much from its pages and am extremely grateful to Sarah Ogilvie for writing it.

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Featured image- The Dictionary People, https://amzn.to/3QEotu8; & Sarah Ogilvie, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/2275720/sarah-ogilvie/

Comments (2)

  1. Kathryn Kohn

    Susannah, my book club read THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS by Pip Williams and enjoyed it thoroughly. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the OED. It is fiction, but contains many of the key players in the development of this magnificent reference book.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also loved Pip Williams’ book, though I didn’t think her second book was as good – The Bookbinder of Jericho. I also loved Simon Winchester’s two books about the dictionary – The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Meaning of Everything.

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