The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

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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.

“As is true of so many of the most important things in an everyday life (the earth, for instance) we take for granted, we never pause a moment to wonder: How did this get made? The Oxford English Dictionary is, especially in my life, such a wonder. In The Dictionary People—a lively, funny book, full of eccentrics—Sarah Ogilvie finds all the magical characters who contributed to making the Dictionary. This is an exquisitely written book.” —Jamaica Kincaid
“Enthralling and exuberant, Sarah Ogilvie tells the surprising story of the making of the OED. Philologists, fantasists, crackpots, criminals, career spinsters, suffragists, and Australians: here is a wonder book for word lovers.” —Jeanette Winterson

“While bringing to life a host of passionate volunteers, Ogilvie also charts decades of social, economic, and cultural change, mapped by words. A fresh, vibrant, entertaining history.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Astonishing . . .  Ogilvie cleverly organises her book as an alphabetised dictionary, running from A for Archaeologist to Z for Zealot by way of N for New Zealanders. This allows her to produce short, punchy biographical essays that never outstay their welcome.” —Kathryn Hughes, The Sunday Times (UK)


Publisher: Chatto & Windus.
Published: 12 Sep 2023.
Format: Paperback, 368pp,
ISBN: 9781784744946
Category: Social & Cultural History.

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