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The Oxford English Dictionary

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The Oxford English dictionary on a woman's lap while sitting in a library.

Within the English-speaking world, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) is commonly regarded as the quintessential authority on the past and present of the English language.

The chief strength of the OED is as a research tool following the etymology of more than half a million English words and phrases. In this respect, it stands above other records of the English lexicon which merely offer modern-day definitions. Clear testament to its colossal scope is the bountiful compilation of literary references, meticulously culled from all walks of English-language literature, periodicals, academic texts and other media. The dated references, presented in chronological order from the first recorded example to present usage, elucidate a word's shifting meaning and pronunciation through the centuries.

Permanently striving to keep pace with a turbulent worldwide language, OED editors stay busy enough to update the monolithic text four times each year, adding and revising more than 1000 entries at a time. In this regard, the dictionary may be seen as more of a fluid and breathing document than a fixed reference guide. Despite this slow, measured flexibility, the OED stands as a steadfast guard over the entirety of the English language on every continent of the planet.

From A to Z

The first edition of the dictionary took 70 years to complete, and it explored nearly 415,000 definitions.

In the middle of the 19th Century, the Philological Society of London decided to embark on a study of the English lexicon. Their project began in 1879, tentatively titled as the New English Dictionary. Oxford University enlisted a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, Professor James AH Murray, to serve as the proposed dictionary's chief editor. He was well respected in the field, having already composed an article on the English language for Encyclopædia Britannica.

The preliminary estimation was for the dictionary to encompass four volumes (roughly 6400 pages), to cover the entirety of English vocabulary from early Middle English (circa 1150 AD) through to the late 19th Century. The editors were startled after five years, when they had planned on being halfway through the project, to discover that they were no farther than the word 'ant'.

The Reading Programme

Tracking the smallest details of seven centuries of language soon proved too formidable a task for the research team alone. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary may never have come to publication if not for the celebrated 'Reading Programme', begun in 1857, which yielded some 5,000,000 quotations gathered from classical and modern literature.

These quotations, covering written English from Anglo-Saxon times until the early 20th Century, were found, examined, assessed, and incorporated into each entry through a procedure that lasted for more than 100 years. First, voluntary and paid readers were asked to review any reputable written material they could procure to provide the editors with contextual quotations indicating how the words were used. Each submission was then written out on a 6 x 4 inch index slip, with a reference included to explain the source of the quotation. These slips were then filed alphabetically by the word they defined. This crude but efficient process is the source of each term's documentation, from its earliest form to its most modern recorded usage.

When the Oxford University Press took over the project in 1878, the editors thought that the material amassed by then would adequately cover the scope of the original philological intentions, but Murray was dissatisfied and found the completed work limited in scope.

Murray organised another programme in 1879, seeking a selection of quotations from a broader base of publishing history, including modern books as well, thinking popular literature as important for the purpose of detailing the true language as more scholarly texts.

He distributed an advertisement, his 'Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading Public', and attracted some far-reaching contributions totalling more than 1,000,000 further quotations. Satisfied with its completeness, the publication of the first chapter of the dictionary proceeded in 1884.


Over the next 40 years, Murray and other scholars, such as Henry Bradley, WA Craigie, and CT Onions, continued to recruit thousands upon thousands of contributors to add volume and weight to the dictionary, by way of countless indexed scraps of paper.

Murray was knighted in 1908, but died 13 years before the dictionary was completed, and the final chapter published in 1928. Sadly, Murray only saw his way through sections A-D, H-K, O, P and T - roughly half of the dictionary.

By then, the dictionary project had a new name, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and its ten volume expanse had already taken its place as the authority on the language. Immediately following the project's completion, Onions and Craigie dived back into their staggering volume of linguistic material to begin the first of a never-ending series of updates to the text.

In 1933, Onions and Craigie published the first supplement, and the dictionary was renamed Oxford English Dictionary and republished in 12 volumes.

The 13 volumes stood untouched, holding unchallenged court over the English-speaking world, until 1957, when a fellow named Robert Burchfield was appointed to the task of revising the supplement and updating the whole dictionary to include 20th Century vocabulary.

Burchfield established a new reading programme with the emphasis on modern day language, incorporating more general, popular, and scientific sources than its predecessor did. The editors also had the 140,000 quotation slips left over from the 1933 volume at their disposal. During this tenure, the dictionary also adopted a more international flavour, taking usages in English-speaking regions such as North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean into account.

The new supplement was published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986.

Modernisation and the Second Edition

Oxford University Press began another modernisation of the text in 1984. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that romantic and scholastically communal as the reading programmes had been, the original means of compiling and updating the entries had become antiquated, mind-boggling, and back-breaking. It was also evident that the reams of source material, practically inviting a disastrous fire or flood, should be taken from paper and preserved in an electronic medium.

No longer a project for lexicographers alone, project managers, computer engineers, and a fleet of typists, editors, and proofreaders were employed for the second edition of the dictionary. The team set a goal for publishing a print edition by 1989, and providing a complete electronic text, both for distribution and for ease of future revision.

The pages of the old edition and the supplement were converted to computer form by 120 typists, and more than 50 proofreaders checked the files. In Oxford, John Simpson, Edmund Weiner, and an oligarchy of lexicographers reviewed, corrected, and edited the electronic dictionary. Five thousand new words and meanings were added. The work was published on time in 1989, in large part due to the speed gained by using software, as well as the keen editorial eyes of the staff. The second edition comprises about 22,000 pages in 20 volumes.

Mysterious Contributor

There is a legendary aside, a favourite among fans of the OED that no account of the celebrated dictionary could go without at least briefly mentioning. It involves Yale Graduate and American Civil War surgeon, Dr William Chester Minor of New Haven, Connecticut.

Living only 50 miles from Oxford, in Crowthorne, England, Minor carried on a direct correspondence with Murray, sending the editor thousands of hand-written quotations over a period of 20 years. Although he was one of thousands of first-edition contributors, the prolific Dr Minor intrigued Murray. Repeatedly he invited Minor to visit the university, and each time Minor quietly declined.

It was not until 1896, when Murray took it upon himself to visit the phantom contributor, that he discovered the reason behind Minor's subterfuge. The doctor was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence at Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane.

In the quiet of his private cell, Minor had amassed a formidable collection of reading material. With nothing but time on his hands for the rest of his life, he put English students in his debt forever, by helping to build, word by word, brick by fastidious brick, the splendid temple of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary.

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