English around the world

Whose English was the Oxford English Dictionary meant to represent? At the outset of the project that would become the OED, Richard Chenevix Trench memorably remarked that a dictionary is ‘the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view’ (Trench 1857: 6), but by the nineteenth century, the spread of the British Empire and the founding of the United States of America meant that English was no longer the language of a single nation. This would become all too evident to the OED’s chief editor. In a lecture he delivered to the Ashmolean Natural History Society, James Murray observed that his standard response to the question ‘How many words are there in the language of Englishmen?’ was:

Of some Englishmen? or of all Englishmen? is it all that all Englishmen speak, or some of what some Englishmen speak? Does it include the English of Scotland and of Ireland, the speech of British Englishmen, and American Englishmen, of Australian Englishmen, South African Englishmen, and of the Englishmen in India? (Murray 1977: 193.)

How much attention should the OED lexicographers pay to English varieties beyond Britain? The answer was not entirely up to Murray and his colleagues. Before the first part of the dictionary was published, the Delegates of Oxford University Press raised concerns over the amount of space that might be given to ‘American slang’,1 and years later the editors were still being pressured to curtail ‘Americanisms […] unless found in American or English authors of note’ (letter 960402A). Nonetheless, the OED’s first example of American usage appeared on the first page of its first part, A–Ant, where a note under A (sense IV 2) states that ‘A1, or in U.S. A No. 1, is used adjectively for “prime, first-class”’; A No. 1 was illustrated by a quotation from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred (1856).

Apart from questions over the prestige of new Englishes—should they be dismissed as ‘slang’? —there were disagreements over the point at which foreign words could be said to have been naturalized into English (British or otherwise). Though many of the prefaces to the OEDs fascicles drew attention to their inclusion of loanwords from African, American, Asian, and Australian languages (see Raymond 2010), Henry Hucks Gibbs advised Murray early on, I do think you should look askance at words that are not English, and sometimes not even foreign, or only slang or at best newly born in the language from which they are borrowed (820720A). Still, the OED’s inclusion of American English was enthusiastically supported by some of Murray’s advisers. In 1884, Edward Arber recommended to him a book about a white man’s travels through Hopi land in Arizona which was ‘full of the latest Americanisms’ (841224A); the same year, John Stephen Farmer responded warmly to a request for a copy of his 1889 dictionary Americanisms, Old & New (880729A).

It is worth noting that much of the OED’s information on English outside of Britain was provided by British-born Englishmen like Arber and Farmer. While the dictionary’s coverage of American English benefitted from Murray’s correspondence with European American writers such as James Russell Lowell (e.g. 830502A), as well as a reading programme in the United States overseen by the philologist Francis March, an attempt to set up a similar programme in Australia by two English immigrants, Edward Holdsworth Sugden and Richard Thomas Elliott, did not succeed (see Gilliver 2016: 118, 258–259). The quotations that Sugden and Elliott did manage to collect were conveyed to Murray by Elliott during a trip back (930923A). Several books on Southern Africa, meanwhile, were read for the dictionary by Richard Chandler Alexander Prior, a widely travelled botanist who had spent some time in the region (820505A). Finally, information on the ‘Anglo-Indian Society word’ coffee-shop was supplied by Edward Lyall Brandreth, a retired member of Britain’s Indian Civil Service (901000A). All of the letters cited above were sent while their writers were visiting or residing in England. These were not Murray’s only correspondents: as one early observer noted, ‘Germany, India, Ceylon, Russia, Japan, Egypt, Jamaica, Madagascar, and South Africa also supply helpers’ (‘Curiosus’ 1880: 263). But the predominantly British makeup of the OED’s corps of advisers and volunteer readers, and the material they were able to access for the dictionary—not to mention the expense of postage for international correspondence—must have influenced the OED’s coverage of World Englishes.

It should also be clear that the modern importation into English of words from languages spoken in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and the development of new English varieties on those continents, was a consequence of imperialism and colonialism. This is plain in Brandreth’s letter on coffee-shop, which describes a gathering site for ‘residents of a station in India’; the relevant sense of station (sense 11b) was defined by the OED in 1915 as ‘In India, a place where the English officials of a district, or the officers of a garrison (not in a fortress) reside’. Discussions of loanwords similarly bear the imprint of the British Empire. A letter from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about teff—a grain indigenous to the Horn of Africa—was accompanied by a clipping from The Daily News which expressed the hope that teff’s ability to grow at high elevation would allow it to be cultivated at ‘our hill stations in India, and for parts of our Colonial Empire similarly situated as to altitude’ (100707A). Another letter from Kew informed Murray that ‘the Kei-apple is so named because it was first known to the Colonists as growing in the region of the Kei River’ in Southern Africa (010403A). The OED’s 1901 entry for kei-apple noted that the Kei is ‘a river formerly separating Cape Colony from’ land held by several Xhosa clans, where ‘formerly’ points to Britain’s annexation of that land since.

In some ways Murray was a remarkably open-minded editor, but his linguistic and cultural views were shaped by his experience as a man who was born in Scotland and spent most of his adult life in England. (He had in fact moved to London in 1864 to become a correspondence clerk for the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China, before returning to teaching and then later beginning work on the dictionary.) His hypothetical questions about the ‘language of Englishmen’, quoted earlier, side-line speakers of English who are not Englishmen by citizenship, culture, or gender. Murray could also become testy when gaps in the OED’s record were brought to his attention by the dictionary’s users. While the OED’s A–Ant fascicle had registered the Afrikaans loanwords aard-vark and aard-wolf—against the wishes of the Delegates2—in 1884, in 1906 Murray found himself accused by one correspondent of having ‘slighted’ the word Africander (i.e. Afrikaaner) by omitting it. Murray replied that ‘the word was hardly known in England in 1881, when Af- was prepared; if we had seen it, we probably took it for a Dutch word’ (061224A). In fact, Murray had been offered evidence of ‘Africaander’ by R. C. A. Prior in 1882 (820505A).

When another correspondent inquired why the Anglo-Indian word cournac had been excluded from the dictionary, Murray responded that it had ‘no claim whatever to be English, either in origins, form, or use’ (000323A). This was an uncharacteristic mistake: the word had actually appeared in the dictionary fascicle C–Cass (1888), edited by Murray, under the spelling carnac. Clearly stung, however, Murray complained that ‘every newspaper contains South African Dutch, Malay, Patagonian, Alaskan, Samoan, or Chinese word [sic] “new to Murray”, who confesses ignorance of all these far-off languages, and is merely a Little-Englander in lexicography’. The documentation of such words would have to wait for the ‘bolder notion of an Imperial Dictionary’, he concluded: ‘we find the language of Little England enough for us’.

The new English words that the OED did record (including carnac) confirm the sarcasm of this last remark. Still, that does not mean Murray was free of a sense of old-country superiority. When a third correspondent—apparently a resident of another country—asked Murray for advice on how to pronounce pronunciation, he admonished her, ‘Outside England (i.e. in U.S, Scotland, Ireland, the colonies), much more than in England, people are apt to think that there is only one “correct” or “proper”, or “right” pronunciation of a word’; by contrast, ‘Every educated Englishman regards himself as, to a certain extent, the master of his language, and wields it as a master of his trade wields his tool’ (950105A). This is hard to credit, given the linguistic prescriptivism extant in nineteenth-century England (see ‘Standards of “Correct” English’), and the fact that British—and more specifically English—English was held up as a model for colonial speakers to follow.

The OED itself was an instrument for promoting British English within and beyond the British Empire. When the Philological Society first approached OUP to publish the dictionary, Henry Sweet had envisioned its being ‘adopted in Great Britain and its colonies and dependencies, and in the United States, and, indeed in the civilized world generally’ (770420A). Soon after the first two parts of the OED were issued, a correspondent requested copies to exhibit in Australia (860111A). Murray himself, who would visit the South African colonies in 1905, later noted that he had seen ‘copies of [the dictionary] (as far as published) in every one of the Government Offices there’ (150108A). Ultimately, the OED recorded the linguistic history—and expanded the linguistic knowledge—of English speakers from many different nations, but the dictionary’s dominant point of view was that of England. The documentation of World Englishes is one area that the OED’s present-day editors are working hard to improve.

Further reading

Benson, Phil. (2001). Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary. London and New York: Routledge.

Mugglestone, Lynda. (2012). ‘Patriotism, Empire and Cultural Prescriptivism: Images of Anglicity in the OED’. In C. Percy and M. C. Davidson (Eds.), The Languages of Nation (pp. 175–191). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ogilvie, Sarah. (2013). Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Salazar, Danica. (2014). ‘Towards Improved Coverage of Southeast Asian Englishes in the Oxford English Dictionary’. Lexicography: Journal of ASIALEX, 1, 95–108.

1. [Criticisms on the English Dictionary], 10 May 1883 (unpublished, OUP Archives, Markby C/2).
2. The New English Dictionary: Suggestions for Guidance in Preparing Copy for the Press, August 1883 (unpublished, OUP Archives, B/5/1/3). Both headwords were preceded by tramlines (||) to show that Murray did not judge them to be completely naturalized in English.