Americanisms in the OED

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One of my favorite diversions is looking at old photographs of James Murray (1837-1915), chief editor of the OED, and his cohort working away in their scriptorium, "a shed in Murray’s back garden in Oxford".

What a bunch of committed eccentrics!  That includes Sarah Ogilvie, who worked at the OED for awhile and wrote this article:

When American Words Invaded the Greatest English Dictionary

Slips of paper with peculiar regional terms like ‘huckleberry’ and ‘cottondom’ crossed the Atlantic to Oxford and into the pages of a 70-year lexicographical project

WSJ (11/10/23)

I am so much in awe and admiration of these quaint, quirky, quixotic lexicographers buried amongst their millions of 4" X 6" quotation slips stuffed in more than a thousand pigeon hole grids that line the walls of their corrugated metal outbuilding that I wish I could quote this entire, wonderful piece, but that would not be acceptable according to the normal rules and practices of Language Log, so I will simply pick and choose several of the more colorful passages.

Most people think of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary as a quintessentially British production, but if you pore carefully over the first edition, compiled between 1858 and 1928, you will find thousands of American words.

There are familiar words describing nature particular to the U.S., like prairieskunk, coyote and chipmunk, but also more recondite ones, like catawba (a species of grape and type of sparkling wine), catawampous (fierce, destructive) and cottondom (the region in which cotton is grown). Today, Americanisms are easy for modern lexicographers to find because of the internet and access to large data sets. But all of the American words in that first edition found their way to Oxford in an age when communication across the Atlantic was far more difficult.

The OED was one of the world’s first crowdsourced projects—the Wikipedia of the 19th century—in which people around the English-speaking world were invited to read their country’s books and submit words for consideration on 4-by-6-inch slips of paper. Until recently, it wasn’t known how many people responded, exactly who they were or how they helped. But in 2014, several years after working as an editor on the OED, I was revisiting a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement where the dictionary’s archive is stored, and I came across a dusty box.

What Ogilvie found inside the box was "an address book of OED editor James Murray, with American contributors’ names underlined in red."  For the past eight years, Ogilvie has doggedly researched the approximately three thousand people in the six address books that she found in that cache of them.  The contributors were an eccentric lot.

Most were not the scholarly elite you might expect. The top four contributors globally, one of whom sent in 165,061 slips, were all connected with psychiatric hospitals (or “lunatic asylums” as they were called at the time); three were inmates and one was a chief administrator. There were three murderers and the owner of the world’s largest collection of pornography who, yes, sent in sex words, especially related to bondage and flagellation.

Two American contributors from Philadelphia caught my attention:

Some American contributors involved in certain causes sought to make sure that their associated words got into the dictionary, like Anna Thorpe Wetherill, an anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia, who hid escaped slaves at her home. Her contributions included abhorrent and abolition. Others turned to their hobbies. Noteworthy Philadelphian Henry Phillips, Jr., an antiquarian and pioneer of the new language Esperanto, ensured that the dictionary had a generous coverage of words relating to coins and numismatics: electrum (coins made of an alloy of gold and silver with traces of copper) and gun money (money coined from the metal of old guns).

Ogilvie documents how Murray disobeyed his OUP superiors by including so many American words:

In the archives, I found letters from Murray’s bosses at Oxford University Press pressuring him to leave out American words: “Americanisms should not be inserted unless found in American or English authors of note.” He ignored them. Murray’s radical vision was for a dictionary of English comprised of words spoken and written in all parts of the world — including the U.S.

However it came to be, the OED is a monument to the English language and to the men and women who created it.


Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Peter Taylor said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 2:45 pm

    I was surprised by

    electrum (coins made of an alloy of gold and silver with traces of copper)

    because I thought that electrum is just the alloy, so I looked at the current OED. There are references to coins in definition 2:

    (also) a pale yellow artificial alloy of gold and silver, formerly much used for jewellery and coinage

    and Henry Philips Jr. may have submitted the quotation

    (1876) The coins of Lydia were frequently of electrum. H. N. Humphreys, Coin Collector's Manual xvi. 186

    but I'm slightly puzzled as to whether the gloss in the article is the author's invention or a definition which was removed in a later revision of the dictionary.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 5:15 pm

    I must concur with my partial namesake’s observation that the OED does not give "coin" as one of the meanings of electrum, but there is one further quotation which may be worth noting :

    1754 The greatest curiosity of this Coin.., is, that it is neither gold nor wholly electrum, or any imitation of gold, but seems to be copper plated over with a mix’d metal in imitation of gold.
    William Borlase (1696–1772), Antiquary and naturalist • Observations on the antiquities … of the county of Cornwall • 1754.

  3. HCP said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 5:23 pm

    What of Americans in British asylums, like William Chester Minor?

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 24, 2023 @ 4:54 am

    Words like "abhorrent" and "electrum" are surely not americanisms, even if they were contributed by Americans?

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2023 @ 5:45 am

    Re “[t]he top four contributors globally, one of whom sent in 165,061 slips, were all connected with psychiatric hospitals”, I cannot recommend too highly Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (“A tale of Murder, Madness, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary”),

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 2:26 pm

    @Andreas Johansson
    I agree, but I assume that some words were contributed by more than one person, and Americans didn’t confine themselves to submitting only Americanisms – indeed, it’s surely only non-Americans who can identify an Americanism?
    Yes, these words were older: “The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, had been founded in Britain in 1787 (the slave trade was abolished in 1807, although slavery persisted in British possessions until 1833), but I think the point was that these were words that were important to her and her cause, and this OED project began while slavwas still legal in the USA.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 10:27 pm

    I wish I could quote this entire, wonderful piece, but that would not be acceptable according to the normal rules and practices of Language Log

    You appear to be 90%+ of the practice of Language Log. If you do something, it is ipso facto acceptable according to the normal rules and practices of Language Log.

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