clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Oxford English Dictionary editor intentionally deleted thousands of words in the '70s and '80s

New, 59 comments
dictionary (UWGB Cofrin Library Flickr)
dictionary (UWGB Cofrin Library Flickr)

In the 128 years since the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published, one of its greatest guiding principles has been that no word should ever be removed, explaining why the complete dictionary spans twenty volumes and weighs over 140 pounds. Its editors believe that someone today picking up a book from the 1920s should still be able to look up obscure terms even if they’re no longer in common usage. Well, The Guardian reports that a single contrarian editor named Robert Burchfield (the same guy that added swearwords) single-handedly removed words by the thousands throughout the 1970s and '80s — a claim laid out in a new book called Words of the World by former OED editor Sarah Ogilvie.

Ogilvie found that Burchfield had actually deleted 17 percent of the English words that originated outside England and foreign loanwords from the definitive dictionary. And the longstanding public perception of the OED as being closed off to foreign words itself likely also stems from Burchfield’s involvement, posits the former editor. "I traced it back and it all started in the early 1970s with Burchfield. If a dictionary editor says this (i.e., that the dictionary’s early editors were Anglocentric) to journalists and scholars, they will believe him. But no one checked either dictionary," quotes The Guardian. In actuality, the early editors were "very sensitive to cultural differences… which must have been amazing for that day when colonial varieties of English were just emerging."