Everyone has certain words that they wish could just be erased from the collective vocabulary. If you’d asked me at any point from the early 90s to the mid 00s, I’d have got rid of ‘brunch’ as soon as looked at you. Failing any kind of consensus on that front, I would also accept the obsolescence of ‘hipster’ or ‘pretentious’. What do you mean I should take my battles to a more appropriate forum? No, you’re out of order.
Imagine the temptation, then, of being appointed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and suddenly having the power to rid the lexicon of any undesirables – a temptation tempered, of course, by the knowledge that once a word makes it to the OED, the book is honour-bound to keep it there, even if it falls out of common usage. Well, if linguist Sarah Ogilvie is to be believed, that ethical dilemma didn’t keep former OED editor Robert Burchfield awake at night, with Ogilvie’s new history of the Dictionary claiming that Burchfield canned thousands of words, largely of foreign origin, during his reign as editor.
Whilst a claim that someone in such a position of power deleted words for which they personally had little affection would be alarming enough for anyone keen to preserve the integrity of English as a language, the particular distaste Burchfield appears to have had for loanwords is especially eyebrow-raising, suggesting a perhaps overly keen interest in preserving said integrity by denying the influence on our vocabulary of any of those countries that we kind of, sort of colonised for several decades.
Ogilvie’s discovery puts the lie to the dominant critical wisdom that the editors of the OED were, pre-World War II, largely fixated with the conservation of the Queen’s English, with many of the words Burchfield appears to have tossed out having first been included by editors from this era keen to reflect the varied dialects that were being brought under the banner of ‘English’ in the dying days of the Empire.
It would, of course, be prudent to note in the interests of full disclosure that Ogilvie’s book is published by Oxford’s friendly rivals at Cambridge University Press, and that Oxford has since responded to Ogilvie’s claims, saying Burchfield ‘was insistent that the dictionary should expand its coverage of international words in English and, although he omitted minor terms from the supplement which he was revising and extending, he added many thousands of more fully researched international entries’.