The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie – Book Review

The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie – Book Review

The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

The Dictionary People
The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary

I received a free copy of this book.
This post contains affiliate links.

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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.

Review by Stacey

The Dictionary People is a fascinating and very clever book. It surprised me how much I would enjoy reading it and passing on the knowledge I’d learned to others who I have mentioned the book to, a lot.

The book begins with an introduction about how The Dictionary People came about. Whatever you do, do not skip this section. I was amazed at where the author got the idea for the book from and that one of the founding members had created essentially a written database of everyone who helped write the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), all 3000 of them.

Then we delve into these people. They are categorised in alphabetical order starting with Archaeologists and ending with Zealots. The author has chosen a few people for each section and it is marvellous to discover more about those that help write the OED. There are even a few photographs of the helpers too.

Overall, this is a book that you can delve into when you have time, not one you have to sit and read continually. You don’t have to read it in a particular order either, you can choose your letter and discover the people under that section. I was surprised by some of the professions and/or lifestyles of the people who chose to help, most for free. I loved this book and I’m a little obsessed with it. I don’t think I will look at the OED in the same way ever again.

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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 in international languages. 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.

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