The man who added “c***” and “f***” to Oxford English Dictionary

Robert Burchfield

Robert Burchfield

If nothing else, the man had balls. The man who added swear words like “c***” and “f***” to  the Oxford English Dictionary also broke another taboo.

Robert Burchfield, who was the chief editor of the Oxford  English Dictionary from 1971 to 1984, secretly removed thousands of foreign words from the corpus. “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,” said Sarah Ogilvie, a former editor of the OED.

She found out what he had done while writing her book, Words of the World, when she compared Burchfield’s four supplements to the OED with the 1933 supplement by Charles Onions and William Craigie.

“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 OED is now re-evaluating words expunged by Burchfield, who died in 2004, aged 81,” reports the Guardian.

This may seem like much ado about nothing, but it does confirm Buchfield’s tendency to play God with the English language.

After all, he had the cheek to rewrite Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a classic on English language usage cherished by generations since it was first published in 1926.

Fowler’s original book had become a “fossil”, he declared in his preface to the third edition, published in 1996.

Of course, the book needed updating because language is constantly changing, but what Burchfield did was unpardonable. He changed the text beyond recognition. The original book was both instructive and entertaining. Fowler wrote with a dash of humour. Burchfield took the fun out of the book. He made no attempt at humour. Writing dispassionately, he robbed the book of the character and individuality it had originally had.

I prefer the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Ernest Gowers and published in 1965. Gowers had the good sense to preserve the humour and idiosyncrasy of Fowler.