The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie
Review,  Nonfiction

The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie – well-researched nonfiction about OED

The Dictionary People is informative, fascinating and well-researched nonfiction about the contributors of OED, Oxford English Dictionary without whom success of OED would not have been possible.

The Dictionary People

The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie

Publication Date : October 17, 2023

Publisher : Knopf

Read Date : August 20, 2023

Genre : Non-fiction

Pages : 368

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Disclaimer – Many thanks to publisher for eARC via NetGalley.
This post contains affiliate links.


A history and celebration of the many far-flung volunteers who helped define the English language, word by word

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and yet, curiously, its creators are almost never considered. Who were the people behind this unprecedented book? As Sarah Ogilvie reveals, they include three murderers, a collector of pornography, the daughter of Karl Marx, a president of Yale, a radical suffragette, a vicar who was later found dead in the cupboard of his chapel, an inventor of the first American subway, a female anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia . . . and thousands of others. 

Of deep transgenerational and broad appeal, a thrilling literary detective story that, for the first time, unravels the mystery of the endlessly fascinating contributors the world over who, for over seventy years, helped to codify the way we read and write and speak. It was the greatest crowdsourcing endeavor in human history, the Wikipedia of its time.  

The Dictionary People is a celebration of words, language, and people, whose eccentricities and obsessions, triumphs, and failures enriched the English language.

Review of The Dictionary People

The Dictionary People is well-researched and informative nonfiction compiling the contributors of OED, Oxford English Dictionary, some mentioned in the prefaces in each section of OED (fascicles) while some not that author found mentioned in Dr James Murray’s address book of volunteers.

The Dictionary People started with the preface- how the author found Murray’s address book and how that motivated the author to find more about the volunteers mentioned in the address book that took her on a wild journey of finding out about people who contributed to the dictionary and made it successful with its all-encompassing and all-embracing vision.

It was interesting to know how this biggest crowd-sourcing project wouldn’t have been possible without thousands of volunteers (exactly around 3000) who gave their precious time and worked indefatigably for the dictionary without any payment and out of goodwill and how we might not know about them (or at least those who are not mentioned in prefaces) without Murray’s methodical notes in his address books and some of the letters he kept that mentioned where they lived, what they read, time frame they worked for dictionary and also some of the personal information that included marriage dates, friendships, and deaths.

I was surprised Murray worked with such small payments (£ 9000 for ten years. so he gets £900/year and that didn’t include expenses for the Dictionary like papers, books to send to volunteers, and payments for staff working under him!) strict timelines and the pressure of completing the dictionary doing many things like editing the words and verifying their sources, living with his big family, keeping in touch with volunteers, follow-ups about the books he sent and slips they sent back, and many other things. It’s just sad he didn’t get to see him completed.

The Dictionary People shows the author’s enthusiasm that is quite infectious and it’s obvious from the very first chapter how much the author loved the dictionary and its history and how much she researched about the volunteers and contributors to write this book, how difficult it might be to find information about people who aren’t alive now and find the documents related to people worked for the dictionary that started in 1857 till its completed in 1928 covering seventy years of its making. It sure is no small feat and the author’s efforts are commendable.

However, I think the execution could be better or more interesting. While the idea of including volunteers in A to Z format- with each alphabet titled contributors’ professions/ hobby / characteristics like A for archeologists, C for Cannibles, murderers, lunatics and so on… some alphabets were regardless of hobbies like B for Best contributors and H for Hopeless contributors.. – was very interesting and stories of the volunteers were very well represented in just few pages, I found the connections between different volunteers under the same alphabet was not smooth. Sometimes it went off track including the timelines and Murray’s struggle and other bits that weren’t about the particular volunteer and hobby the author was discussing.

I agree with what one of the reviewers said, sectioning the book as per profession or hobbies is the problem. I could see writing book instead with only males / females / queer contributors could have made it easy to follow. Also, there wasn’t any chronological order also made it hard to follow who worked in which timeline.

As my copy is eARC I didn’t have an appendix with a list of contributors discussed in the book that I would have liked to refer to later and I think it should be included as there was so much information, so many names mentioned that I never could tell who was discussed in which alphabet.

It is impossible to remember everything in every chapter and no reader, nor even an enthusiast of the dictionary can read this in one go with this much information. It took me almost a month to read this book and if you even ask me to list just the title of all A to Z letters I would have to refer to the Content list in the beginning.

I also found some of the stories a bit boring especially when I was nearing the end of the book. (It might be partially because I just wanted to finish the book) It is often a little tedious to read some chapters which made me use Murray’s initial choice of word for dictionary for this book as well, exhaustive.

But yes, for nerds who love OED and is fascinated by the dictionary (not just words), its making, the methods they used, who made it successful and stories of many volunteers about how they came to be part of the dictionary would surely enjoy reading The Dictionary People.

Overall, The Dictionary People is informative, fascinating and well-researched nonfiction about the contributors of OED, Oxford English Dictionary, without whom success of OED would not have been possible. However, this often was exhaustive read and dull at some points. So it might not be for everyone.

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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”


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