Kiwi editor's Oxford English deception

Last updated 17:19 27/11/2012
Robert Burchfield
MAN OF WORDS: Robert Burchfield.

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A New Zealander is being accused of covertly deleting words from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Guardian says Whanganui-born Robert Burchfield, who died in 2004, covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and then blamed previous editors when people realised words had gone missing.

His deception was uncovered by Sarah Ogilvie, a linguist, lexicographer and former editor on the OED, who reveals them in a new book, Words of the World.

Burchfield produced four OED supplements between 1972 and 1986.

She compared Burchfield's work with a supplement in 1933 and found that he had deleted 17 per cent of the "loanwords" and world English words that the earlier supplement had included 45 per cent more foreign words than Burchfield.

Examples of Burchfield's deleted words include balisaur, an Indian badger-like animal; the American English wake-up, a golden-winged woodpecker; boviander, the name in British Guyana for a person of mixed race living on the river banks; and danchi, a Bengali shrub.

The Guardian said the OED was now re-evaluating the deleted words.

"This is really shocking. If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves," Ogilvie said.

She said there had been a myth around that editors before Burchfield had been anglocentric - but she says Burchfield created the myth.

"He said he opened up the dictionary, and put in swearwords for the first time. The swearwords claim is true. In that sense he was the first to bring the dictionary into the 21st century."

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