Auguste Comte

Spelling it out: the volunteers who made the dictionary

‘Everything obscene comes from France,’ wrote James Dixon, an eye surgeon retired to Dorking, in 1888. He was provoked by learning of an item called a condom, and explained to his correspondent, James Murray, that this was ‘a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap’. Surely the word had no place in the Oxford English Dictionary, of which Murray had for the previous nine years been editor? Murray was persuaded and left it out. Dixon was a useful source of information about words relating to medicine, and Oxford’s team of under-resourced lexicographers relied on the goodwill of such volunteers. Ogilvie’s book is an engaging sideways look