Does it matter that women were largely absent in the history of the compilation of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? Or the fact that the words recorded were predominately biased towards the experiences of Victorian-era men?
I recently finished reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, a fictionalised account through the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (with real life characters and historical anecdotes woven in). The inspiration behind the premise of the novel came from Williams’ discovery that the definition of the word bondmaid had been omitted from the first edition. In the novel, Williams aimed to address two central questions: Do words mean different things to men and women? And if so, is it possible something has been lost in the process of defining them? As someone coming from a linguistics background, this novel fascinated me and led me to ponder this question of how we define language and, perhaps more importantly, how it might define us. This article will attempt to give a brief account of the history of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary and hopes to show why linguistic bias in the timeline of the dictionary does matter.
The assembly of the Oxford English Dictionary
Plans for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) went underway in 1857 when the Unregistered Words Committee of the Philological Society of London decided that an up-to-date, comprehensive English dictionary covering all words from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present should be produced.
As illustrated in The Dictionary of Lost Words, the compilation of the reference book that would become the Oxford English Dictionary actually required millions of small pieces of paper – “quotation slips” – to be sent in to Oxford editors by volunteers, who would delve into historical and contemporary texts and copy a sentence from a book in an attempt to illustrate its meaning. These quotations were then sent in to lexicographer and primary editor of the OED, James Murray, and were subsequently reviewed, sorted and filed by the Oxford editors. Whilst this process helped the editorial team to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the various and nuanced meanings denoted by a single word, it was nonetheless a messy and complicated process. With thousands of quotations being stuffed in arbitrary boxes and bags, this naturally led to words being hidden away and forgotten…
In 1901, the editors who were working on the compilation of the first edition received communication from a member of the public to draw their attention to the fact that there was a word missing. This word was bondmaid. It had taken 40 years after the first volume – comprising only the letters A to B – for this exclusion to be brought to light.
What is important to note here is the meaning behind this word. The dictionary definition of bondmaid is a female slave or a woman bound to service until her death without wages. As mentioned by Williams in the author’s note, uses of this word had been mailed in by the public, but the top slip that may have contained the final meaning is still nonetheless missing from archives today.
Do words mean different things to men and women?
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a story about a young girl named Esme who has spent her childhood growing up in the Scriptorium or ‘scrippy’ – a garden shed in Oxford where Murray and his team of lexicographers gathered words for the very first OED. One day, she notices a slip of paper with the word bondmaid fall to the ground. As she begins to realise that the words whose meanings relating to the experiences of women are typically going unrecorded, she steals the first edition and starts stealthily collecting words for a new dictionary, namely The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Do words mean different things to men and women? In my opinion, this is a very grey area with no definitive answer, especially in view of the distinction between gender and biological sex (though this is beyond the scope of this article). However, based on my knowledge of sociolinguistics and different speech communities from my university studies, I would like to argue that the novel’s central questions are valid and relevant, if not important, ones.
As a closing remark, I would like to end this article with a quote from the final chapter of the novel: “Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us. But what happens when words that are spoken are not recorded? What effect does that have on the speaker of those words?”. As such, if the words used by particular groups to convey their experiences are excluded from dictionaries, then that lack of representation may, in turn, drive language (and social) inequality.
According to Williams, the OED is currently in the process of a major revision whereby entries will be revised and new words and meanings added. The above quote, in my mind, aptly illustrates the importance of why dictionaries should be continually updated to fully represent language as it is used by all speakers who speak it (and to better shed light on the past).
Language change is inevitable and the English language is no exception – meanings will change and new words will continue to be coined overtime. Dictionaries should reflect this and evolve also.
Reilly, L. 2018. The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word. Mental Floss. 12 January. [Accessed 20 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/523939/time-oxford-english-dictionary-forgot-word
Sullivan, H. 2021. Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams review – a gentle, hopeful story. The Guardian. [Online]. 16 April. [Accessed 20 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/16/dictionary-of-lost-words-by-pip-williams-review-a-gentle-hopeful-story
Williams, P. 2021. A Secret Feminist History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Literary Hub. 26 April. [Accessed 20 December 2022]. Available from: https://lithub.com/a-secret-feminist-history-of-the-oxford-english-dictionary/