What is Left Unsaid: How Some Words Do—Or Don’t—Make It Into Print

One summer morning in 1883, Alexander John Ellis sat at his desk in front of three large bay windows, opened wide to catch any breeze that London’s Kensington had to give. From his chair, he could hear the birds in the plane trees and see right down Argyll Road, its five-story white stucco Georgian houses resembling layers of an expensive wedding cake. By the time everyone else was rising, Ellis had generally already been up for several hours. Early morning was his favorite time of day. Ellis loved the notion of getting ahead while others were sleeping, and getting work done before his neighbor, a master singer, started his scales and taught his students by the open window. “The nuisance is awful at times,” he wrote to Murray. Ellis always ate the same light breakfast of a French roll with butter, and drank his signature beverage: a cup of warm water with a little milk.

This day, as every day, his first act on waking was to weigh himself naked, before dressing for the day. Always the same boots and coat, affectionately named Barges and Dreadnought, before heading straight to his desk on the second floor. He needed to weigh himself before putting on his clothes for one main reason: Dreadnought was heavy. Dreadnought had twenty-eight pockets, each one stuffed full with eccentric items. Ellis made a noise like a kitchen drawer as he walked. When he sat down, eyewitnesses said that his pockets “stood upright like sentinels.” They were variously full of letters, nail clippers, string, a knife sharpener, a book and philological papers in case of emergency, and two things that a teetotaller and someone who watched his weight rarely needed: a corkscrew and a scone, just in case friends were in want of either. These last two items sum up Ellis; he was kind-hearted and always thought of his friends before himself.

Most people hear sounds, but Ellis saw them.

On his desk, there were signs of everything that he held dear: a draft of the fifth and final volume of his monumental book, On Early English Pronunciation, daguerreotypes of Venice and his three children, a tuning fork, and a favorite quotation from Auguste Comte, the founder of altruism, “Man’s only right is to do his duty. The intellect should always be the servant of the heart, and should never be its slave.”

This morning held a special excitement: also spread out in front of him were Murray’s proof sheets for the first section of the Dictionary (words A to Ant)—all 362 pages of them. Murray had sent them to Ellis for his comment. As Ellis’s eyes skimmed the proofs, he could not help looking for his own name in the Introduction. He felt a sense of profound satisfaction to see “A. J. Ellis, Esq, FRS (Phonology)” listed between Prof. Frederick Pollock (Legal terms) and Dr P. H. Pye-Smith (Medical and Biological words).

Ellis’s passions were pronunciation, music, and mathematics, and his expertise in all of these areas had been sought by Murray who had had difficulty finding British academics to help him (by contrast, American scholars were eager to be involved). He had helped Murray with the very first entry in the Dictionary—A: not only the sound A, “the low-back-wide vowel formed with the widest opening of the jaws, pharynx, and lips,” but also the musical sense of A, “the 6th note of the diatonic scale of C major,” and finally the algebraic sense of A, “as in a, b, c, early letters of the alphabet used to express known quantities, as x, y, z are to express the unknown.” Ellis was happy to see these and other results of his work on the printed page, including the words air, alert, algebra.

Many people, not only in Britain but around the world, were eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first part of the Dictionary, and Murray particularly wanted Ellis’s opinion on the draft Introduction, which he knew he had to get just right. It all read perfectly to Ellis except for one section. “The Dictionary aims at being exhaustive,” Murray had written. “Not everyone who consults it will require all the information supplied; everyone, it is hoped, will find what he actually wants.”

Is it really exhaustive? Ellis wondered. What about slang and coarse words? He scribbled to Murray in the margin (and the page with the scribble still survives today in the archives), “You omit slang & perhaps obscenities, thus are by no means exhaustive. Though disagreeable, obscene words are part of the life of a language.” Feeling satisfied with his contribution to Murray’s landmark first part of the Dictionary, and admiring of the project as a whole, Ellis placed the corrected draft into an envelope and placed it by his front door, ready for the morning post.

Ellis had raised an important question about inclusion, but he was not quite right about the boundaries of the Dictionary. Murray had included slang but it was true that, so far, he had left out obscenities. We can only imagine the uproar in Victorian society had he not. Murray would agonize over his decision to leave them out, but also had to be mindful of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 which made it illegal to expose the public to any content judged to be grossly indecent.

Murray’s caution proved wise when, a few years later, a fellow lexicographer and one of the Dictionary People, John Stephen Farmer, had his own legal drama. Farmer was writing a slang dictionary with William Henley, and was struggling to publish the second volume (containing the letters C and F) of his work on grounds of obscenity. Farmer took his publisher to court for breach of contract in 1891, and tried to convince a jury that writing about obscene words in a dictionary did not make him personally guilty of obscenity, but he lost the case and was ordered to pay costs. Eventually, he found fresh printers and avoided the Obscene Publications Act by arguing that his dictionary was published privately for subscribers only, not the public, and the remarkable Slang and Its Analogues by Farmer and Henley was published in seven volumes (from 1890 to 1904), with cunt and fuck and many other words regarded as lewd on its pages. Farmer’s legal case and the public outcry that ensued was a clear deterrent for Murray.

By the time that section of the letter C was published for the Oxford English Dictionary the only cunt that was listed by Murray was cunt– , a cross- reference to the prefixes cont– , count- with no mention whatsoever of the female body part. Fuck was also left out. Although these old words had been in use since the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively, they would have to wait until the 1970s to be included in the OED. Murray did, however, include pudendum, a word derived from Latin for “that of which one ought to be ashamed,” which he defined as “the privy parts, the external genital organs” with no reference to a woman or—God forbid—her vulva.

Each of Murray’s advisers had different notions of what was offensively salacious. His adviser on medical terms, James Dixon, who was a retired surgeon living in Dorking, Surrey, had been all right with including cunt, but absolutely drew the line with a word which he considered so obscene it had to be sent to Murray in a small envelope marked PRIVATE, sealed within a larger envelope. Inside the intriguing packaging was a message advising him not to include the word condom. “I am writing on a very obscene subject. There is an article called Cundum…a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well- deserved clap; also by others who wish to enjoy copulation without the possibility of impregnation,” he wrote to Murray. “Everything obscene comes from France, and I had supposed this affair was named after the city of Condom, which gives title to a Bishop.” But he had found a quotation from 1705 referring to a “Quondam” which made him rethink his assumption that it was named after the town in France. “I suppose Cundom or Quondam will be too utterly obscene for the Dictionary,” he concluded. Murray left it out.

Dixon was the man who unwisely advised Murray to delete the entry for appendicitis because it was, according to Dixon, just another itis-word. “Surely you will not attempt to enter all the crack-jaw medical and surgical words. What do you think of ‘Dacryocystosyringoketokleitis’? You know doctors think the way to indicate any inflammation is to tack on ‘itis’ to a word.” The word’s deletion turned out to be an embarrassment to Murray and Oxford University Press when, in 1902, the coronation of Edward VII was postponed because of the King’s attack of appendicitis. Suddenly everyone was using the word, but no one could find it in the Dictionary, and since the letter A was already published it could not be added until the Supplement volume in 1933.

But back to the summer of 1883. Murray received the corrected proofs from Ellis. He not only appreciated Ellis’s feedback but also trusted his judgement: he promptly deleted all claims to exhaustiveness and wrote, “The aim of this Dictionary is to furnish an adequate account of the meaning, origin, and history of English words now in general use, or known to be in use.”


I had been wondering how Ellis got to be such a word nerd? I was fascinated by what I discovered. To begin with, something very unusual happened when he was eleven years old. His mother’s cousin, a schoolmaster called William Ellis, offered to give the young boy a substantial inheritance if he would change his surname from Sharpe to Ellis. Mr and Mrs Sharpe agreed, and from then on “Alexander John Sharpe” became “Alexander John Ellis.” The young boy was enrolled at Shrewsbury School and Eton, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and never had to earn money for the rest of his life.

Ellis’s wealth enabled him to be the quintessential “gentleman scholar,” an expert in almost everything he did, be it music, mathematics, languages, phonetics, travel, or daguerreotype photography. He was a polymath for whom life was more a science than an art. He published over 300 articles and books, and his works are quoted in the OED 200 times.

Words were like children to Ellis.

His interest in accent and pronunciation was inspired by the fact that he was born to a middle-class family in Hoxton, east London, where he was exposed to working-class cockney speakers, followed by schooling at Shrewsbury with its Welsh and English accents, and then exposed to the Received Pronunciation of the upper and upper-middle classes at Eton and Cambridge.

Words were like children to Ellis. He loved them equally, regardless of whether they were common, technical, scientific, slang, or foreign. He read the Dictionary as though it were a novel. Some words gave him pure delight in both their sound and meaning such as absquatulate, to abscond or decamp, with a quotation from Haliburton’s Clockmaker. “Absquotilate [sic] it in style, you old skunk…and show the gentlemen what you can do.” But it was their sounds that captured his imagination most. The quality of a whisper or a creak; the stress of a syllable; high pitch or low pitch.

Most people hear sounds, but Ellis saw them. He saw the air move in the mouth, the way the tip of the tongue touched the ridge of the teeth for a t; the vibration of vocal cords to change it to a d; and how the base of the tongue moved back in the mouth to block the flow of air for a g. Every sound was a picture for Ellis. He devoted his life to painting these pictures, describing their systematic order so the world might better understand the fundamentals of language.

His book On Early English Pronunciation, published in five volumes between 1869 and 1889, traced the pronunciation of English from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century and established him as a world authority on English phonology, a pioneer in the field of speech-sound studies. For the nineteenth-century section of the book, Ellis enlisted the help of hundreds of informants across Britain and a small group of experts, including Murray and others within the OED network. The result was the first major study of British dialects.

No language yet existed for the patterns Ellis was identifying, so he often had to invent the words, which subsequently made it into the Dictionary: palatalized, to make a palatal sound (by moving the point of contact between tongue and palate further forward in the mouth); labialization, the action of making a speech sound labial (articulated with both lips); and labiopalatalized, a sound made into a labiopalatal (articulated with the front of the tongue against the hard palate and the lips). He also invented the words septendecimal, relating to a seventeenth (in music); and phonetician, which originally referred to an advocate of phonetic spelling, rather than its current meaning of “an expert of phonetics.” Quite a few of his inventions have since fallen out of use and appear in the Dictionary with a dagger sign (which indicates obsolescence) beside them, such as vocalistic, of or relating to vowels, and phonotyper, an advocate of phonotypy (another term which Ellis invented, meaning “a system of phonetic printing”).

Ellis was one of the phoneticians on whom George Bernard Shaw modeled the character of Henry Higgins, that master of pronunciation, in his play Pygmalion, later turned into the musical My Fair Lady. Higgins (as a bet with his gentlemen friends) teaches Eliza Doolittle to speak “proper” English; but Ellis had none of Henry Higgins’s snobbery or arrogance. He was a generous, down-to-earth man, a frequent correspondent with friends, happy to offer advice when asked, and always working to bring people together and support them.

Ellis spent every Sunday carrying out experiments in musical pitch at the house of musicologist Alfred Hipkins. He arrived at the Hipkinses’ by horse cab, the pockets of Dreadnought full of tuning forks, measuring rods, notes, and resonators. So as not to cause any trouble to the Hipkinses’ servants, the thoughtful Ellis even filled his experiment jars with water for refreshment before leaving home. Ellis’s work with Hipkins is preserved in the Dictionary in certain words which they alone invented and used—but as no one else did they are now obsolete, for example mesotonic, relating to the mean tone.

After a full afternoon of experiments with Alfred, Ellis would join the Hipkins family for lively conversation around the tea table, although he refrained from eating lest it interfere with his supper of warm-water-and-milk. Hipkins’s daughter Edith remembered these Sundays and commented that for someone who became famous for sound, Ellis actually had a bad ear: “Dr. Ellis was tone deaf and could not distinguish between ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘Rule Britannia!’ Happily my father had an unusually sensitive ear and as Dr. Ellis arrived at conclusions entirely by calculations he would call upon his ‘other self’ in time of trouble with ‘Lend me your ears!’”


From The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie. Copyright © 2023. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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