How efforts of a ‘naked scribbler’ led to an OED bias

Apr 05, 2024 at 03:33 pm by admin

Like some obscure or unlikely fact in a trivia game comes the information that one of the Murdoch family’s newspapers is among the world’s most prolific sources for the Oxford English Dictionary.

But there’s more including a “lexicographical superhero” who wandered through a Brisbane suburb nude at night and collected old movie posters.

Thanks to quotations collected by Chris Collier from the (Brisbane) Courier-Mail, the News Corp metro tabloid has become the 390th-most-frequently quoted source in the dictionary, ahead of TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf or the English church’s prayer book.

Having read Sarah Ogilvie’s ‘The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the OED’, Courier-Mail journalist Michael Madigan wrote that there are more contributions to the dictionary from the paper to eclipse those of novelist Virginia Wolfe and “the offerings of the daughter of Karl Marx who, despite being enthusiastic about the creation of new words, was reportedly ‘close to useless’ at the task”. He is quoted in the newsletter of the Australian Newspaper History Group.

Madigan – a former Canberra bureau reporter famous for his tongue-in-cheek opinion pieces on politics – quotes ‘paceway’ (meaning racecourse for trotters), ‘snaky’ (angry), ‘petrol head’ (car enthusiast) and even ‘sickie’ (for having a day off work) as examples. The source of these – “at least for the OED,” he says – was the Courier-Mail.

In her book, Brisbane native Ogilvie tells how Collier was an eccentric who wandered the streets of Paddington nude late at night, and cut words from the paper which he glued to bits of paper, despatching more than 100,000 “suggestions” to the dictionary’s compilers in the 35 years until his death in 2010.

As a result, Madigan says, the Courier-Mail is “only 317 places behind the Holy Bible as the most frequently quoted source in a dictionary that has drawn more than two million sources”.

Ogilvie says none of Collier’s neighbours knew he volunteered for the OED nor that words from their local newspapers would eventually find their way onto its authoritative pages.

“Thanks to his work, there is a weird bias in the OED towards quotations from the Courier-Mail.”

Peter Coleman


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