Words of the World is a new examination of the Oxford English Dictionary and its policies towards words of foreign origin (as well as words whose origin lies in World Englishes), and particularly an examination of the perception that the OED until recently had limited or excluded words of this sort.
In part, it is a personal story, beginning as it does with author Sarah Ogilvie's memoir of joining the Oxford University Press to work on the inclusion of exactly these sorts of words--a remembrance which would be fascinating and interesting as a work in its own right. Here we get observations on the unlikely backgrounds and broad cultural roots of today's lexicographers.
But the focus of the book quickly becomes clear and the majority of the work focuses on the personalities, judgements, and editorial choices of the OED's various editors--particularly its early editor, Dr. Murray, who appears befrocked, bearded, and moustachioed like some latter day Merlin or Gandalf, lodged in his Scriptorium, and casting his net across the globe via the Royal Mail. From here, we follow his successors, culminating in Robert Burchfield, whose publicly claimed to have opened the dictionary from the (apparently) mythical grip on the OED by parochial, close-minded, Imperial English grandees who worked to keep the dictionary untrammeled by colonials and savages.
By close examination, including case studies and surveys of the original volumes, period criticism and comparative works, and the various supplements, we find that, far from being a puristic and Anglo-Saxon redoubt, the OED has long--and sometimes controversially--championed words from the broad spectrum of English language. As one remarks:
The English Language is the language of Englishmen! Of which Englishmen? Of all Englishmen or of some Englishmen? . . . Does it include the English of Great Britain and the English of America, the English of Australia, and of South Africa, and of those most assertive Englishmen, the Englishmen of India, who live in bungalows, hunt in jungles, wear terai hats or puggaries and pyjamas, write chits instead of letters and eat kedgeree and chutni? Yes! In its most comprehensive sense, and as an object of historical study, it includes all these; they are all forms of English.
Should you read this?
If you love words (as I do), you'll be greatly entertained--and also enlightened. It's easy to forget that English is an amalgam of many parts. That it is a living, evolving language. And so it's amusing to see fervent arguments about whether a word like "canoe" is English or to see a long debate about the proper Anglicization of the word "timbre". And, for that matter, we get a look at the fascinating people who made those arguments, from `one of the great rock-blasting entrepreneurs of Victorian scholarship, the kind of man who if his energies had taken another turn might have covered a continent with railways' to various outcasts, outsiders, and outlanders who brought global English within the canon of nothing less than the weighty OED.
In the interest of full-disclosure, this cannot be a completely impartial review: as it happens, Sarah Ogilvie works down the hall, so part of my fun in reading is in imagining her in her early career. While you won't have that advantage, I can say that I quickly forgot about her, though, and was immersed in her story and her unraveling of it. You should too.
PS> Do buy this in Kindle format. One of the delights I had with this book was looking up the various words inside it on your Kindle's (shorter, non-ODE) Oxford dictionaries to see what's there.