OED hunts for lost book

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The Oxford English Dictionary has appealed to the public to help track down a book from which almost 50 words are thought to have been sourced.

According to the New Yorker, the missing book, Meanderings of Memory, is cited as an early source for 49 words, including the adjective “chapelled” (meaning situated in a chapel).

The appeal, published on the OED website on 3rd May stated that “we have been unable to trace this title in library catalogues or text databases”. According to the website, the only evidence that could be found for the existence of the book was a single entry in a London bookseller’s catalogue dating from 1852. The author was listed as “Nightlark”.

Dan Selinger, a spokesperson for Oxford University Press, told Cherwell, “There are a range of theories as to why the book is proving difficult to trace. One is that the title was privately published – possibly because it was pornographic.”

So far the appeal has had some success. One online commenter provided an additional reference to the book in an 1845 auction catalogue. Selinger said that “this appeal has been one of our most popular so far, so we are hopeful that additional information will emerge in the days and weeks to come”. He continued, “There has been a huge amount of interest in this appeal”.

When asked what the consequences for the dictionary would be if the book could not be traced, Selinger stated “The quotations in the OED are evidence of the way a certain word has developed and been used down the years; it’s important that we can identify and date the source accurately”.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a long tradition of appealing to the public for assistance. In 1879, OED editor James Murray appealed to English-speaking readers to send in curious words that they came across to help with the development of the first edition. The challenge was taken up, not only by academics, but many laypeople.

One first-year English student, Nancy Jiang, told Cherwell, “The loss of this book might not turn out to be such a bad thing. In fact it might be quite a good thing because it will help the public to think about the history of our language”.

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