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Q&A  •  24 May 2024


Sarah Ogilvie on the research, cataloguing and technology behind The Dictionary People

The Dictionary People is a joyful read, but behind the book was a lot of hard work. We caught up with the author to learn about how she approached such a massive project.

The Dictionary People opens with you at Oxford, reminiscing on the past fourteen years you spent there. But how did you end up at Oxford in the first place, and what sparked your interest in language?

I actually started working for the Oxford Dictionary here in Australia. The National Dictionary Centre is at Australian National University (ANU), where I began my work as a lexicographer while I was a grad student.

Did you study linguistics? 

Eventually, yes. I discovered my passion for linguistics after my maths degree. I started as a mathematician and a computer scientist and then did a master's in linguistics at ANU. After that, I ended up doing my doctorate at Oxford in linguistics. 

People often think that STEM is one realm and the arts is another, but linguistics is somewhat mathematical. Do you think that is what sparked your interest?

I think so. A lot of physicists and mathematicians go into linguistics. It requires a similar way of thinking because you're looking for patterns and structures. 

In all my work, I bridge the humanities and the digital, and a lot of digital scholarship went into The Dictionary People. I wrote the book because I was interested in the global network of people who helped create the dictionary, and I wanted to know who the connectors within that hub were – the people who brought other people to the project.

People who know a bit about the Oxford English Dictionary might think that the main connector was someone like James Murray, the famous chief editor. 

People who know a bit more – like myself – might think it was his predecessor, Frederick Furnival, a colourful, extroverted character. 

When we applied network analysis, called graph theory in mathematics, someone completely different came up. The biggest connector in the hub was someone named Alexander John Ellis. 

That surprised me at first, but when I did a deep dive on him, it made total sense. With that knowledge, I ensured he was featured frequently throughout the book because he was so important to the creation of the dictionary. 

That's just one example of where the tech lies within the book.  Readers don't see how much technology was involved, but it helped me write The Dictionary People and make sure I was telling the real story. 

The book touches on the cataloguing process that Murray created to form the dictionary. Like Murray, you would have had to use your own cataloguing system to write The Dictionary People. What did that look like?

The Dictionary People was inspired by an address book of Murray's that I discovered in the Dictionary Archives at Oxford. Contributors to the dictionary submitted words to him via paper slips, which he meticulously recorded. 

After that initial discovery, I discovered three more address books of his. Then the following summer, I discovered three address books belonging to his predecessor, Frederick Furnival. 

These books referred to 3,000 people. Beyond names and addresses, they also contained every book each person had read, the number of slips per book they'd sent in, the date slips were received and so on.

When I saw all of that information, I envisioned a digital project. 

I created two data sets. One had all the people and their addresses. With a group of wonderful students at Stanford, we researched fifty different parameters – where people were born, where they died, who they loved, what their occupation was – as much as we could, by trawling through old censuses. 

The other data set was all the books they read and the words that they sent in. 

So I did have a cataloguing system, and I had to use computers to help me with the sheer amount and vastness of all the data.

The Dictionary People is one product of all that work, but there's a lot more detail than you would have had the scope to explore in one book. Has all of that data shaped your thinking and teaching in different ways?

Yes, I'm sure that it has. And I've had a great response from readers whose views of the dictionary have been changed by the book. One of the key findings in The Dictionary People is that the dictionary wasn't created by scholars, although we think of it as a very scholarly text.

Many of the people who contributed were not your scholarly elites. They were your amateurs and your autodidacts.  A lot of them left school at fourteen or fifteen, just like James Murray himself. 

It was a big revelation, and within the book, I tried to write the history of the dictionary from the bottom-up so that we do not see it as this elite project, but rather a project of the people – which it was.

Many of those people might have been trying to fulfil academic desires that they had no way of fulfilling otherwise. You’re giving them a voice; they're finally getting their chance.

It's very true. One of my big questions was: What was motivating these people? They were so generous. The top contributor sent in 165,000 slips.

People just sent in whatever they wanted, and did all of it for free. 

I think they wanted the opportunity to be part of a project and the whole prestigious world of Oxford from which they were otherwise denied. 

Questions around language have been in the zeitgeist for different reasons lately, with AI and large language models. What has the impact been on your work as a linguist, and do you think these tools will continue to shape and change language? 

I think these tools are going to change the world completely. At the moment, the hallucinations that occur with ChatGPT-4, and with generative AI in general, seem to be a safeguard against generative AI replacing the lexicographer. 

However, the dictionary is investigating and experimenting with different prompts and finding out the boundaries for using generative AI to help in the definition-writing process, among other things. 

As a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in what ways do you think the dictionary today is similar to Murray's initial creation, and in what ways has it changed?

It's remarkably similar in both its method and output. 

Of course, the editors now don’t rely solely on slips that are sent in. People still send slips today, but the editors supplement those by searching vast data sets and databases.

Diachronic dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, show the first instance of a word in a printed source – and finding that is really exciting for lexicographers. 

Today, editors updating the dictionary still get excited if they can antedate one of Murray's entries, which tells us he was remarkably successful in finding the first instance. 

It's thanks to all those people around the world sending in those quotations. 

It is said that Shakespeare invented hundreds of words we still use today. Is that true? 

Yes, it's true, but we should remember that many of those words were probably being spoken before he wrote them down. He was certainly the first to write them down, and some of them, he probably did create from scratch, but many of them were probably being spoken. 

You’re currently in Australia for writers’ festivals. What are you most looking forward to this festival season?

I really love writers’ festivals. I love the question period and hearing what the audience wants to know more about. 

I'm also really excited about my Sydney Writers' Festival event at the State Library of NSW. 

Next week, I'm speaking at the Centennial Supper Club in Bowral and then at the Brisbane Writers Festival next Thursday night with Sarah Kanowski. So many wonderful things!

Is there anything else Australian readers should know about The Dictionary People

The book reveals the huge contribution Australians made. 

There was one man at the University of Melbourne, Edward Morris, who acted as a proxy. Over 200 people from around Australia sent him words and slips, and then he sent them off to Oxford. 

It was remarkable and therefore means that a lot of Australian words got into that first edition. Most of them are very obscure Australian words that we no longer hear, but they're fascinating to learn more about. 

It shows that the first edition was truly global, and it included not just words from Australia that everyone uses now but also words that only people in Australia used. You wouldn’t expect those kinds of Australianisms to be in this international dictionary, but they were. There were also a lot of Māori words (like kohua) and New Zealand words (like hoot – slang for ‘money’). 

Murray was criticised for that. Early reviewers felt these ‘outlandish’ words didn’t belong. There was pressure to keep them out – but he persisted and kept them. 

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