Meet the Dictionary People

Discover the unsung heroes behind the Oxford English Dictionary in lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie’s fascinating new book.

Black-and-white illustrations of four Victorian figures. From left to right: a woman holding a large telescope; a woman with an umbrella and a large stack of books; a bearded man wearing a coat with many pockets; an elderly man wearing a mortarboard hat and writing in a book

The Oxford English Dictionary has long been associated with elite institutions and Victorian men, but it didn’t just belong to these experts – it relied on contributions from members of the public.

By the time it was finished in 1928, its 414,825 entries had been crowdsourced from a surprising and diverse group of people, from archaeologists and astronomers to murderers, naturists, novelists, pornographers, queer couples, suffragists, vicars and vegetarians.

In The Dictionary People, Sarah Ogilvie reveals, for the first time, the full story of the extraordinary people behind one of the world’s most famous books.

Meet just a handful of these colourful characters below . . .

Elizabeth Brown

Black-and-white illustration of Elizabeth Brown standing beside a large telescope

An astronomer who travelled and observed the skies of Britain, Russia and Trinidad. Brown was one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s most prolific female volunteers who, along with her sister Jemima, contributed over 7,000 quotation slips to the project.

Charlotte Yonge

Black-and-white illustration of Charlotte Yonge, holding a parasol and balancing a stack of books on top of a travelling trunk

A novelist whose works are quoted over 1,300 times in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yonge also subedited the letter ‘N’ and contributed her own quotation slips from a dozen books.

Alexander John Ellis

Black-and-white illustration of of Alexander John Ellis, a bearded man wearing a coat with many pockets

This phonetician and word nerd wore a coat called ‘Dreadnought’ with twenty-eight pockets, each one stuffed with eccentric items. Ellis’s passionate support of the Oxford English Dictionary made him a ‘super-connector’ among the Dictionary People, bringing a number of influential figures to the project.

James Murray

Black-and-white illustration of James Murray, wearing a mortarboard and spectacles. He is writing in an open book, with more books piled at his feet

The longest-serving editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1879 up to his death in 1915. Murray kept a detailed address book of all the Dictionary contributors – not just names and addresses, but often notes on their deaths, marriages and friendships, including every book they had read for the Dictionary.

Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, aka Michael Field

Black-and-white illustration of two women, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. One woman sits in a chair, reading from a book. The other stands at her side, one hand resting on her lover's shoulder

Also known as the poet Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper were an aunt and niece who were lesbian lovers. Along with Cooper’s sister, Amy, they contributed to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary for over a decade, sending in 7,900 quotation slips.

Eadweard Muybridge

Black-and-white illustration of Eadweard Muybridge. He is holding a pistol and posing in front of an old-fashioned camera

Muybridge shot dead his wife’s lover in a mining town in California, but never went to jail. Instead, he became a famous pioneer in the world of photography and motion pictures, and advised the Oxford English Dictionary on terms relating to it.

Sir John Richardson

Black-and-white illustration of Sir John Richardson, dressed in Arctic furs and huddled before a camp fire, stirring a cook pot

Richardson spent his retirement living a quiet life in the Lake District with his daughter, Beatrice. Together they read books and sent in many words to the Oxford English Dictionary. This was in stark contrast to his earlier adventurous years searching for the Northwest Passage on a doomed arctic journey, in which he and his starving companions ate fellow members of their team.