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  • Published: 3 September 2024
  • ISBN: 9781529922578
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $24.99

The Dictionary People

The unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary

The hidden history of the unsung heroes who created the Oxford English Dictionary


‘Unmissable’ Stephen Fry
'A delight' Katherine Rundell
‘Illuminating’ Susie Dent
'Enthralling' Jeanette Winterson

What do three murderers, Karl Marx's daughter and a vegetarian vicar have in common?
They all helped create the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary has long been associated with elite institutions and Victorian men. But the Dictionary didn't just belong to the experts; it relied on contributions from members of the public. By 1928, its 414,825 entries had been crowdsourced from a surprising and diverse group of people, from astronomers to murderers, naturists, pornographers, suffragists and queer couples.

Lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie dives deep into previously untapped archives to tell a people's history of the OED. Here, she reveals, for the first time, the full story of the making of one of the most famous books in the world - and celebrates the extraordinary efforts of the Dictionary People.

'An astonishing book' Sunday Times

'Utterly fascinating, entertaining, astonishing and as clever as a box of monkeys ... I completely love it' Joanna Lumley

‘A fascinating and delightful exploration of the Victorian world … Wonderful’ Nicola Shulman, TLS Podcast

** A Financial Times, TLS and Daunt Books Book of the Year **

  • Published: 3 September 2024
  • ISBN: 9781529922578
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $24.99

About the author

Sarah Ogilvie

Sarah Ogilvie teaches at the University of Oxford, and specializes in language, dictionaries, and technology. As a lexicographer she has been an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary and was Chief Editor of Oxford Dictionaries in Australia. As a technologist she has worked in Silicon Valley at Lab 126, Amazon's innovation lab, where she was part of the team that developed the Kindle. She originally studied computer science and mathematics before taking her doctorate in Linguistics at the University of Oxford, and then taught at Cambridge and Stanford.

Praise for The Dictionary People

'An erudite and vivid exploration of the origins of the OED in the first crowdsourcing of contributions from thousands of individuals - including murderers, lunatics and cannibals. Marvellous, witty and wholly original'

Alan Rusbridger

'Sarah Ogilvie has brought to light in glorious and surprising detail the creation of one of the greatest reference works of all time. She has laboured in the archives to reveal a new history - one that illuminates the astonishing stories of the extraordinary men and women who gave us the OED'

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian and author of Burning the Books

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

This history, sourced from the author's discovery of the address books of the Dictionary's famous editor, James Murray, is as fascinating as the array of wonderful words [the Dictionary People] filled their dictionary with

Big Issue *Hottest Reads of Summer 2023*

Fun and fascinating

The Bookseller

Utterly fascinating, entertaining, astonishing and as clever as a box of monkeys... I am bowled over by Sarah Ogilvie's book and every home should have a copy. I completely love it

Joanna Lumley

'Ogilvie introduces us to a remarkable cast of overlooked and unexpected lives, woven together by a common devotion to a project far ahead of its time. Lovers of history and language will delight in the discoveries Ogilvie shares with us-an alphabetical page turner!'

Casper Grathwohl, President, Oxford Languages, OUP

Who knew such mysteries lay behind the Oxford English Dictionary? This is a fascinating, unique and original book which uncovers the people behind the words. A jaw-dropping cross-section of society are revealed for the first time in all their complexity

Janina Ramirez, author of Femina

Exquisitely written ... A lively, funny book full of eccentrics

Jamaica Kincaid

Introduces readers to a fascinating cross-section of Victorian society ... The whimsical narrative is also educational, providing extensive insight into the process used to trace the origins of words. Readers will be enthralled

Publishers Weekly *Starred Review*



Full of determination and eccentricity ... Ogilvie's enthusiasm ... is infectious, and this book is a delight to read



Kathryn Hughes, The Sunday Times

I love words and I cherish my OED ... having the background of it explained was fascinating

Val McDermid

The Dictionary People is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in dictionaries, social history or just people. Sarah Ogilvie has found a great subject and done it justice

Literary Review

Not just a comprehensive description of the dictionary, but also a companion to the Victorian intellectual landscape

Times Literary Supplement

'A panoramic account . . . It's fascinating watching Ogilvie track the contributors down'

Daisy Hay, London Review of Books

A sprightly, elegant tribute to the ordinary readers who made up the bulk of the O. E. D.'s work force . . . Engrossing, lively and entertaining

Dennis Duncan, New York Times (International)

The OED is an epic, crowdsourced attempt to pin down slippery, evolving language; this book tells the fascinating story of its eclectic and unsung contributors

Financial Times, *Books of the Year*

If you are fascinated by words, there is no better book

Jeanette Winterson, New Statesman, *Books of the Year*

A captivating exploration of some of the extraordinary individuals who helped to produce the monument that is the OED

Church Times

Proof that not only do our words have extraordinary lives, but so do the people who have documented them for us. A lively, entertaining, and illuminating read. I loved it

Susie Dent

The story of the first complete Oxford English Dictionary…and the hundreds of men and women who were instrumental in its creation… Ogilvie does a marvellous job of bringing them all to life… It’s surprisingly moving: I found myself in tears at the end. I think any lover of words would enjoy this as much as I did


Marvellous… An unmissable, wonderful achievement

Stephen Fry