Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary

Henry Hitchings writes:

Of all the volunteers who contributed material to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Dixon was the most opinionated. A retired oculist living in Dorking, he was appalled when he came across the word cundum in print, and told James Murray (the OED’s editor from 1879 to 1915) that this was the name of ‘a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap’. It was ‘too utterly obscene’ to appear in the dictionary. Murray seems to have agreed: it was excluded. Other words were omitted after wide consultation (cunt) or because the entire entry was mislaid (bondmaid). At first, all proper nouns and words formed from them were passed over; as a result the first published fascicle of 1884 (covering words from a to ant) contained no entry for African. There was one for American, because at some point in the slow drafting of entries Murray abandoned the policy, but it wasn’t until 1933, when the first supplement to the OED appeared – covering new words and new meanings, as well as correcting or amplifying existing entries – that the absence of African was rectified. It takes a tendentious commentator to diagnose this as racism rather than the consequence of a questionable editorial judgment. But the critics of dictionaries are quick to interpret local blunders as marks of darker purpose.

(LRB 7 March 2013)