Oxford English Dictionary

From Nordan Symposia
Jump to navigationJump to search


Oxford English Dictionary Set.jpg

As of 30 November, 2005, the OED included about 301,100 main entries, comprising more than 350 million printed characters. Additional to the headwords of main entries, it has 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type, and 169,000 phrases and combinations in bold italic type, a total of 616,500 word-forms. It has 137,000 pronunciations, 249,300 etymologies, 577,000 cross-references, and 2,412,400 illustrative quotations. The latest, complete printed edition of the dictionary (Second Edition, 1989) was 20 volumes, comprising 21,730 pages, with 291,500 entries.

The policy of the OED is to attempt recording a word's most known uses and variants in all varieties of English, worldwide, past, and present; per the 1933 Preface:

  • "The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records [ca. 740 AD] down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang."

It clarified:

  • "Hence we exclude all words that had become obsolete by 1150 [the end of the Old English era] ... Dialectal words and forms which occur since 1500 are not admitted, except when they continue the history of the word or sense once in general use, illustrate the history of a word, or have themselves a certain literary currency."

The OED is the focus of much scholarly work about English words. Its choice of order in listing variant spellings of headwords influences the written English of many countries.



Originally, the dictionary was unconnected to the university; it was a project conceived in London, by the Philological Society, when Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall were dissatisfied with the available English dictionaries.

In June, 1857, they formed an "Unregistered Words Committee" for finding unlisted and undefined words not in current dictionaries. But Trench's report, presented in November, was not a simple list of unregistered words; it was a study titled On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, which he concluded were sevenfold:

  • Incomplete coverage of obsolete words
  • Inconsistent coverage of families of related words
  • Incorrect dates for earliest use of words
  • History of obsolete senses of words often omitted
  • Inadequate distinction between synonyms
  • Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations
  • Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content.

Trench suggested that a new and truly comprehensive dictionary would do: based upon contributions from many volunteer readers, who would read books, copy passages illustrating actual word uses to quotation slips, and mail them to the editor. In 1858, the Society agreed, in principle, to the project: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED).

The first editors

Trench played a key role in the project's first months, but his ecclesiastical career meant he could not attend to the dictionary for the necessary time, easily ten years; he withdrew, and Herbert Coleridge became the first editor.

On May 12, 1860, Coleridge's plan for the work was published, and the research started. His house was the first editorial office; he ordered a 54-pigeon-hole grid in which to array 100,000 quotation slips. In April 1861, the first sample pages were published; later that month, Coleridge died of tuberculosis, at age 31.

The editorship then fell to Furnivall, who was greatly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but lacked the temperament for such a long-term project. Many assistants were recruited and two tons of readers' slips and other materials delivered to his house, in many cases passed to them. Furnivall realized they needed an efficient excerpting system. Therefore, in 1864, he founded the Early English Text Society, and, in 1865, founded the Chaucer Society for preparing editions of general benefit and immediate value to the dictionary project, however, none of this work led to compilation; it was entirely preparatory, lasting 21 years.

In the 1870s, Furnivall unsuccessfully approached Henry Sweet and Henry Nicol to succeed him, before James Murray accepted the post. His efforts and association with the dictionary have led to the OED being called 'Murray's Dictionary'.

In the end, there were some 800 enthusiastic volunteer readers, but in a paper-and-ink-dependent process, the major drawback was that the choices of the relatively untrained volunteers—regarding what to read and select, what to discard, and how much detail to provide were arbitrary. One prolific contributor, W. C. Minor, Murray later learned, was an inmate of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. As months and years passed, the project languished; Furnivall began losing track of assistants, some of whom assumed the project abandoned; others died and their slips went unreturned. Later, the entire set of quotation slips for words starting with H was found in Tuscany; others were assumed to be waste paper and burned as tinder.

The Oxford editors

At the same time the Society had become concerned about the publication of what it was now clear would have to be an immensely large book. Various publishers had been approached over the years, either to produce sample pages or for the possible publication of the whole, but no agreements had been reached. Those approached included both the Cambridge University Press and the OUP.

Finally, in 1879, after two years of negotiations involving Sweet and Furnivall as well as Murray, the OUP agreed not only to publish the dictionary but also to pay Murray (who by this time was also president of the Philological Society) a salary as editor. They planned on publishing the work at intervals in fascicles, its final form consisting of four volumes of some 6,400 pages. They hoped to finish it in about ten years.

It was Murray who really got the project off the ground and was able to tackle its true scale. Because he had many children, he chose not to use his house in the London suburb of Mill Hill as a workplace; a corrugated iron outbuilding, which he called the "Scriptorium", lined with wooden planks, was erected for him and his assistants. It was provided with 1,029 pigeon-holes for filing the slips of paper, and many bookshelves.

Murray now tracked down and regathered the slips collected by Furnivall, but he found them inadequate because readers had focused on rare and interesting words: he had ten times more quotations for abusion than for abuse. He therefore issued a new appeal for readers, which was widely published in newspapers and distributed in bookshops and libraries. This time readers were specifically asked to report "as many quotations as you can for ordinary words" as well as all of those that seemed "rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way." Murray arranged for the American philologist and liberal-arts-college professor, Francis March, to manage the process in North America. Soon 1,000 slips per day were arriving at the Scriptorium, and by 1882 there were 3,500,000 of them.

It was February 1, 1884, 23 years after Coleridge's sample pages, when the first portion, or fascicle, of the Dictionary was published. The full title had now become A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, and the 352-page volume, covering words from A to Ant, was priced at 12s.6d or $3.25 U.S. The total sales were a disappointing 4,000 copies.

It was now clear to the OUP that it would take much too long to complete the work if the editorial arrangements were not revised. Accordingly they supplied additional funding for assistants, but made two new demands on Murray in return. The first was that he move from Mill Hill to Oxford, which he did in 1885. Again he had a Scriptorium built on his property (to appease a neighbour, this one had to be half-buried in the ground), and the Post Office installed a pillar box directly in front of his house.

Murray was more resistant to the second requirement: that if he could not meet the desired schedule, then he must hire a second senior editor who would work in parallel, outside his supervision, on words from different parts of the alphabet. He did not want to share the work, and felt that it would eventually go faster as he gained experience. But it did not, and eventually Philip Gell of the OUP forced his hand. Henry Bradley, whom Murray had hired as his assistant in 1884, was promoted and began working independently in 1888, in a room at the British Museum in London. In 1896 Bradley moved to Oxford, working at the university itself.

Gell continued to harass both editors with the commercial goal of containing costs and speeding production, to the point where the project seemed likely to collapse; but once this was reported in the press, public opinion backed the editors. Gell was then dismissed, and the university reversed his policies on containing costs. If the editors felt that the Dictionary would have to grow larger than had been anticipated, then it would; it was an important enough work that the time and money necessary to finish it properly should be spent.

But neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see it done. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A-D, H-K, O-P and T, or nearly half of the finished dictionary; Bradley died in 1923, having done E-G, L-M, S-Sh, St and W-We. By this time two additional editors had also been promoted from assistant positions to work independently, so the work continued without too much trouble. William Craigie, starting in 1901, was responsible for N, Q-R, Si-Sq, U-V and Wo-Wy; whereas the OUP had previously felt that London was too far from Oxford for the editors to work there, after 1925 Craigie's work on the dictionary was done in Chicago, where he had accepted a professorship. The fourth editor was C. T. Onions, who, starting in 1914, covered the remaining ranges, Su-Sz, Wh-Wo and X-Z.


By early 1894 a total of 11 fascicles had been published, or about one per year: four for A-B, five for C, and two for E. Of these, eight were 352 pages long, while the last one in each group was shorter to end at the letter break (which would eventually become a volume break). At this point it was decided to publish the work in smaller and more frequent installments: once every three months, beginning in 1895, there would now be a fascicle of 64 pages, priced at 2s.6d. or $1 U.S. If enough material was ready, 128 or even 192 pages would be published together. This pace was maintained until World War I forced reductions in staff. Each time enough consecutive pages were available, the same material was also published in the original larger fascicles.

Also in 1895, the title Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first used. It then appeared only on the outer covers of the fascicles; the original title was still the official one and was used everywhere else.

The 125th and last fascicle, covering words from Wise to the end of W, was published on April 19, 1928, and the full Dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately.

First Edition and First Supplement

It had been planned to publish the New English Dictionary in ten volumes, starting with A, C, D, F, H, L, O, Q, Si, and Ti; but as the project proceeded, the later volumes became larger and larger, and, while the full 1928 edition officially retained the intended numbering, Volumes IX and X were published as two "half-volumes" each, split at Su and V respectively. The entire edition was also available as a set of 20 half-volumes, with two choices of binding. The price was 50 or 55 guineas (£52.10s or £57.15s) depending on the format and binding. The dictionary covered 414,825 words backed by five million quotations, of which some two million were actually printed in the dictionary text.

It had been 44 years since the publication of A-Ant and, of course, the English language had continued to develop and change. So by this time the early volumes were noticeably out of date. The solution was for the same teams to produce a Supplement, listing all words and senses that had developed since the relevant pages were first printed; this also gave the opportunity to correct any errors or omissions. Purchasers of the 1928 edition were promised a free copy of the supplement when it appeared.

The supplement was again produced by two editors working in parallel. Craigie, now being in the United States, did most of the research on American English usages; he also edited L-R and U-Z, while Onions did A-K and S-T. The work took another five years.

In 1933 the entire dictionary was reissued, now officially under the title of Oxford English Dictionary for the first time. The volumes after the first six were adjusted to equalize them somewhat and eliminate the "half-volume" numbering: the main dictionary now consisted of 12 volumes, numbered as such, and starting at A, C, D, F, H, L, N, Poyesye, S, Sole, T, and V. The supplement was included as the 13th volume. The price of the dictionary was reduced to 20 guineas (£21).

Second Supplement and Second Edition

In 1933 Oxford University had finally put the Dictionary to rest; all work ended, and the quotation slips went into storage. But of course the English language continued to change, and by the time 20 years had passed, the Dictionary was outdated.

There were three possible ways to update it. The cheapest would have been to leave the existing work alone and simply compile a new supplement, of perhaps one or two volumes; but then anyone looking for a word or sense and unsure of its age would have to look in three different places. The most convenient choice for the user would have been for the entire dictionary to be re-edited and retypeset, with each change included in its proper alphabetical place; but of course this would be most expensive, with perhaps 15 volumes to be produced. The OUP chose a middle approach: combining the new material with the existing supplement to form a larger replacement supplement.

Robert Burchfield was hired in 1957 to edit it; Onions, who turned 84 that year, was still able to make some contributions as well. Burchfield emphasized the inclusion of modern-day language, and through the supplement the dictionary was expanded to include a wealth of new words from the burgeoning fields of science and technology, as well as popular culture and colloquial speech. Burchfield also broadened the scope to include developments of the language in English-speaking regions beyond the United Kingdom, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. The work was expected to take seven to ten years. It actually took 29 years, by which time the new supplement (OEDS) had grown to four volumes, starting with A, H, O and Sea. They were published in 1972, 1976, 1982, and 1986 respectively, bringing the complete dictionary to 16 volumes, or 17 counting the first supplement.

But by this time it was clear that the full text of the Dictionary now needed to be computerized. Achieving this would still require retyping it once, but thereafter it would always be accessible for computer searching — as well as for whatever new editions of the dictionary might be desired, starting with an integration of the supplementary volumes and the main text. Preparation for this began in 1983 and editorial work started the following year under the administrative direction of Timothy J. Benbow, and with John A. Simpson and Edmund S. C. Weiner as co-editors.

And so the New Oxford English Dictionary (NOED) project began. More than 120 keyboarders of International Computaprint Corporation in Tampa, Florida, and Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, USA, started keying in over 350,000,000 characters, their work checked by 55 proof-readers in England. But, retyping the text alone was not sufficient; all the information represented by the complex typography of the original dictionary had to be retained, which was done by marking up the content in SGML; and a specialized search engine and display software were also needed to access it. Under a 1985 agreement, some of this software work was done at the University of Waterloo, Canada, at the Centre for the New Oxford English Dictionary, led by F.W. Tompa and Gaston Gonnet; this search technology went on to be the basis for Open Text Corporation. Computer hardware, database and other software, development managers, and programmers for the project were donated by the British subsidiary of IBM; the colour syntax-directed editor for the project, LEXX, was written by Mike Cowlishaw of IBM. The University of Waterloo, in Canada, volunteered to design the database. A. Walton Litz, an English professor at Princeton University who served on the Oxford University Press advisory council, told Paul Gray for TIME (March 27 1989), "I've never been associated with a project, I've never even heard of a project, that was so incredibly complicated and that met every deadline."

By 1989 the NOED project had achieved its primary goals, and the editors, working online, had successfully combined the original text, Burchfield's supplement, and a small amount of newer material into a single unified dictionary. The word "new" was again dropped from the name, and the Second Edition of the OED, or the OED2, was published. (The first edition retronymically became the OED1.)

The OED2 was printed in 20 volumes. For the first time there was no attempt to start them on letter boundaries, and they were made roughly equal in size. The 20 volumes started with A, B.B.C., Cham, Creel, Dvandva, Follow, Hat, Interval, Look, Moul, Ow, Poise, Quemadero, Rob, Ser, Soot, Su, Thru, Unemancipated, and Wave.

Although the content of the OED2 is mostly just a reorganization of the earlier corpus, the retypesetting provided an opportunity for two long-needed format changes. The headword of each entry was no longer capitalized, allowing the user to readily see those words that actually require a capital letter. And whereas Murray had devised his own notation for pronunciation, there being no standard one at the time, the OED2 adopted today's International Phonetic Alphabet. Unlike the earlier edition, all foreign alphabets except Greek were transliterated.

When the print version of the second edition was published in 1989, the response was enthusiastic. The author Anthony Burgess declared it "the greatest publishing event of the century," as quoted by Dan Fisher for the Los Angeles Times (March 25 1989). TIME dubbed the book "a scholarly Everest," and Richard Boston, writing for the London Guardian (March 24 1989), called it "one of the wonders of the world."

New material was published in the Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series, two small volumes in 1993, and a third in 1997, bringing the dictionary to a total of 23 volumes. Each of the supplements added about 3,000 new definitions. However, no more Additions volumes are planned, and it is not expected that any part of the Third Edition, or OED3, will be printed in fascicles.

Compact editions

Meanwhile, in 1971, the full content of the 13-volume OED1 from 1933 was reprinted as a Compact Edition of just two volumes. This was achieved by photographically reducing each page to ½ its original linear dimensions, so that four original pages were shown on each page ("4-up" format). The two volumes started at A and P, with the Supplement included at the end of the second volume.

The Compact Edition was sold in a case that also included, in a small drawer, a magnifying glass to help users read the reduced type. Many copies were inexpensively distributed through book clubs to their members.

In 1987 the second Supplement was published as a third volume in the same Compact Edition format. For the OED2, in 1991, the Compact Edition format was changed to ⅓ of the original linear dimensions (9-up), requiring stronger magnification but also allowing the entire dictionary to be published in a single volume for the first time. Even after these volumes had been published, though, book club offers commonly continued to feature the two-volume 1971 Compact Edition. It is common to read comments praising this earlier edition for its better readability (larger text) and convenience (two smaller volumes), besides the quality of the case and the existence of the magnifying glass drawer in it.

Electronic versions

Now that the text of the dictionary was digitized and online, it could also be published on CD-ROM. The text of the First Edition was made available in 1988. Afterward, three versions of the second edition were issued. Version 1 (1992) was identical in content to the printed Second Edition, and the CD itself was not copy-protected. Version 2 (1999) had some additions to the corpus, and updated software with improved searching features, but had clumsy copy-protection that made it difficult to use and would even cause the program to deny use to OUP staff in the middle of demonstrations of the product. Version 3 (2002) has additional words and software improvements, though its copy-protection is still as unforgiving as that of the earlier version, and it is available for Microsoft Windows only. See "Miscellanea", below, for further details.

Single-click access to Oxford dictionaries is also available with Babylon Translator, which provides access to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus with 240,000 definitions and 365,000 synonyms and antonyms.[1]

On March 14, 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online) became available to subscribers.'The world's greatest dictionary' goes online[2] The online database contains the entire OED2 and is updated quarterly with revisions that will be included in the OED3 (see below). The online edition is the most up-to-date one available.

As the price for an individual to use this edition, even after a reduction in 2004, is £195 or $295 US every year, most subscribers are large organizations such as universities. Some of them do not use the Oxford English Dictionary Online portal and have legally downloaded the entire database into their organization's computers. Some public libraries and companies have subscribed as well, including, in March and April 2006, most public libraries in England and Wales [3] and New Zealand;[4] [5] any person belonging to a library subscribing to the service is able to use the service from their own home.

Another method of payment was also introduced in 2004, offering residents of North or South America the opportunity to pay $29.95 US a month to access the online site.

Third Edition

The planned Third Edition, or OED3, is intended as a nearly complete overhaul of the work. Each word is being examined and revised to improve the accuracy of the definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and historical quotations—a task requiring the efforts of a staff consisting of more than 300 scholars, researchers, readers, and consultants, and projected to cost about $55 million. The end result is expected to double the overall length of the text. The style of the dictionary will also be changing slightly. The original text was more literary, in that most of the quotations were taken from novels, plays, and other literary sources. The new edition, however, will reference all manners of printed resources, such as cookbooks, wills, technical manuals, specialist journals, and rock lyrics. The pace of inclusion of new words has been increased to the rate of about 4,000 a year. The estimated date of completion is 2037.[6] From Unregistered Words to OED3]." (History of the Oxford English Dictionary[7])

New content can be viewed through the OED Online or on the periodically updated CD-ROM edition. It is possible that the OED3 will never be printed conventionally, but will be available only electronically. That will be a decision for the future, when it is nearer completion.

As of 1993, John Simpson is the Chief Editor. Since the first work by each editor tends to require more revision than his later, more polished work, it was decided to balance out this effect by performing the early, and perhaps itself less polished, work of this revision pass at a letter other than A. Accordingly, the main work of the OED3 has been proceeding in sequence from the letter M. When the OED Online was launched in March 2000, it included the first batch of revised entries (officially described as draft entries), stretching from M to mahurat, and successive sections of text have since been released on a quarterly basis; by December 2007, the revised section had reached quit shilling. As new work is done on words in other parts of the alphabet, this is also included in each quarterly release.

The production of the new edition takes full advantage of computers, particularly since the June 2005 inauguration of the whimsically named "Perfect All-Singing All-Dancing Editorial and Notation Application", or "Pasadena." With this XML-based system, the attention of lexicographers can be directed more to matters of content than to presentation issues such as the numbering of definitions. The new system has also simplified the use of the quotations database, and enabled staff in New York to work directly on the Dictionary in the same way as their Oxford-based counterparts.(Pasadena: A Brand New System for the OED[8])

Other important computer uses include internet searches for evidence of current usage, and e-mail submissions of quotations by readers and the general public.

Wordhunt was a 2005 appeal to the general public for help in providing citations for 50 selected recent words, and produced antedatings for many. The results were reported in a BBC TV series, Balderdash and Piffle. Thus, the OED’s small army of devoted readers continue to contribute quotations; the department currently receives about 200,000 a year.


The OED lists British headword spellings (e.g. labour, centre) with variants following (labor, center, etc.). For the suffix more commonly spelt -ise in British English, OUP policy dictates a preference for the spelling -ize, e.g. realize vs realise and globalization vs globalisation. The rationale is partly linguistic, that the English suffix mainly derives from the Greek suffix -ιζειν, (-izo), or the Latin -izāre; however, -ze is also an Americanism in the fact that the -ze suffix has crept into words where it did not originally belong, as with analyse (British English), which is spelt analyze in American English [9]. See also -ise / -ize at American and British English spelling differences.

The sentence "The group analysed labour statistics published by the organization" is an example of OUP practice. This spelling (indicated with the registered IANA language tag en-GB-oed) is used by the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Organization for Standardization, and many British academic publications, such as Nature, the Biochemical Journal, and The Times Literary Supplement.


  • The OED is occasionally called the "Oed" (зd), a reference to Oedipus Rex.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien once was an OED employee researching etymologies of the Waggle to Warlock range; he parodied the principal editors as "The Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford" in the story Farmer Giles of Ham.
  • Julian Barnes also was an employee; he disliked the work.
  • The early modern English prose of Sir Thomas Browne is the most frequently quoted source of neologisms.
  • William Shakespeare is the most-quoted writer, with Hamlet his most-quoted work.
  • George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is the most-quoted woman.
  • Collectively, translations of the Bible make it the most-quoted work; the most-quoted single work is Cursor Mundi.
  • Dr. W. C. Minor was one of the most prolific early contributors as a reader. Whilst imprisoned in a criminal lunatic asylum, he invented his own quotation-tracking system, so that he could then submit his slips upon the editors' request.
  • Tim Bray, co-creator of the Extensible Markup Language (XML), credits the OED as the developing inspiration of that web language.
  • The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set, which required 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the OED3 in sequence starting from M, the longest entry became make in 2000, then put in 2007.[10] Set is expected to regain its place as the longest entry once it too is revised.
  • It would take a person 120 years to type the 59 million words of the OED second edition and 60 years to proofread it, and 540 MB to electronically store it. [11]
  • The British quiz show Countdown has awarded the leather-bound complete version to the champions of each series since its inception in 1982.
  • The taboo words fuck and cunt did not appear in any general English dictionary between 1795 and 1965; they first appeared in the OED in 1972.
  • While large, the OED is not the world's largest dictionary; that distinction belongs to the Dutch dictionary Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, which has similar aims to the OED, and took twice as long to complete.

See also


Further reading

  • Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Clarendon Press, 1989, twenty volumes, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
  • Caught in the Web of Words: J. A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, by K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Oxford University Press and Yale University Press, 1977; new edition 2001, Yale University Press, trade paperback, ISBN 0-300-08919-8.
  • Empire of Words: The Reign of the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Willinsky, Princeton University Press, 1995, hardcover, ISBN 0-691-03719-1.
  • The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, Oxford University Press, 2003, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-860702-4.
  • (UK title) The Surgeon of Crowthorne / (US title) The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester; see The Surgeon of Crowthorne for full details of the various editions.
  • Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Lynda Mugglestone, Yale University Press, 2005, hardcover, ISBN 0-300-10699-8.
  • The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, Oxford University Press, 2006, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-861069-6.
  • Treasure-House of the Language: the Living OED, Charlotte Brewer, Yale University Press, 2007, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-300-12429-3.

For a wider view of the history of dictionaries see:

  • Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, by Jonathon Green, Jonathan Cape, 1996, hardcover, ISBN 0-224-04010-3.

External links


  • History of the Oxford English Dictionary [14]